Kazuko Shiraishi is Japan’s ambassador in charge of Arctic affairs. Prior to her current posting, Shiraishi was Japan’s ambassador for women, human rights, and humanitarian affairs and was also Tokyo’s ambassador to Lithuania. She will be Japan’s observer to the Arctic Council meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2017.
Shiraishi spoke to The Diplomat in Tromso, Norway, where she was speaking at the Arctic Frontiers conference in January 2017. In her interview, she discussed the role of observers in the Arctic Council and Japan’s Arctic policy.
You had a diverse career before your placement as Japan’s Arctic ambassador. Have you always been interested in Arctic issues?
Unfortunately, I had not had the opportunity to look closely at Arctic affairs until this posting. As I noted during my speech, Japan’s comprehensive Arctic policy only dates to 2015. During the process of the drafting, the Japanese government accepted the increased importance of arctic affairs for Japan. That said I was excited when Japan named me the country’s first [Arctic ambassador] at the conclusion of that drafting process.
Natural resource extraction is a large part of Arctic policy. While Russia is ramping up its economic involvement in the Arctic, other countries are pursuing a different path. The United States and Canada recently moved to end offshore drilling. What is Japan’s approach?
Japan’s involvement in the development of natural resources in the Arctic is still limited. We have invested some capital in a company that is involved in offshore exploration in Greenland. Additionally, [Japan has invested in] some of the contracts for Russia’s Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas or LNG project… In particular Japanese companies have been involved regarding the design, procurement, and construction areas of the project. Additionally, some Japanese companies have contracts to carry LNG from Yamal LNG trains to Asia and Europe.
Though these projects aside, I’m sorry to say, that so far Japanese companies haven’t really taken an interest in Arctic resources. I think, though, that perceptions of the Arctic in Japan are changing.
How important is the Yamal LNG project for Japan? For its Arctic policy and more generally?
As you may know, Japan because of its unique geology has no natural resource in terms of extractive hydrocarbons such as oil and gas. Furthermore we import 90 percent of our energy resources. As a result of this, supplier diversification is very important for Japan. Japan strives for diversification both in terms of source and type of energy. The Japanese participation in Yamal is very important and as an Arctic project even more so. Japanese companies are very much invested in the outcome of the Yamal LNG project.
At the same time, we are involved in the important of natural gas projects elsewhere, from North America in shale gas and elsewhere. Also from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more generally. Our ties with Russia are an important part of our diversification strategy. Developing this energy source in the Arctic circle is an important part of that strategy as well.
Is Japan interested in other opportunities to develop natural resources in the far North? I was talking to an official from the Sakha Republic at this conference who remembers that during the Soviet era, Japanese companies exported coal from Sakha (Editor’s Note: The Sakha Republic is also sometimes referred to as Yakutia and is one of the federal subjects of the Russian Federation. Some 40 percent of its territory lies within the Arctic Circle).
The Sakha Republic has been vocal in its desire for more Japanese investment in natural resource extraction. Is Japan interested in Arctic coal?
At present Japan has no existing projects focused on Arctic resources other than on oil and gas and no interests in any specific project involving natural resources in the Arctic. I mentioned the Yamal LNG project and on the extractive side Japanese companies are also looking at opportunities in Greenland.
Japan is an observer in the Arctic Council. At present observer countries cannot vote in the Arctic Council. Does Japan feel that rule should be changed?
We expect that in the future Arctic Council meetings should incorporate some opportunity for observer countries to speak before the gathered representatives. We are not suggesting that observer nations should have the opportunity to speak at every plenary session. At the last Arctic Council meeting in Canada in 2015, the United States organized a special session [for observers to voice their concerns] the day before the formal plenary meetings and that might be a good idea in the future and a good opportunity for observers to make presentations of their views of Arctic issues. Member states would value hearing from the perspectives of observers.
Are you suggesting a permanent forum as part of Arctic Council meetings in the future?
I want to make very clear I am not asking for an institutional arrangement within the Arctic Council for observers. I am just suggesting another special session liked that arranged by the United States that took place previously. Should that kind of experiment should be continued it would be appreciated with observer countries. Such a forum would allow observer countries the opportunity to interact directly with the permanent members of the Arctic Council.
Take fishing for example. It might be difficult to invite the observer countries for substantive sessions on this issue. Yet clearly, there is value in observer countries being involved in this discussion in some way.
At present, the Arctic Council membership has been limited to Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Does Japan think the Arctic Council should allow new members to join?
As an observer, I cannot say yet if they should include new members. What I am saying now is that the Arctic Council should consider more active involvement of Arctic observes in the council in some way which allows observers a chance to express opinions and make presentations and formulate a framework for binding agreements.
Japan is one of the largest funders of intergovernmental organizations. If it was allowed to do so, would Japan be interested in funding the Arctic Council?
Observers states are not requested to contribute funds under the present framework. Should that change, Japan would certainly be open to such proposals.
After the Fairbanks meeting in May, the council’s chairmanship will move to Finland. What does Japan hope to achieve out of the next Arctic Council meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska?
We are looking forward to the upcoming conference in order to conclude a framework on scientific cooperation in the Arctic under the Arctic Council. Science is very important and Japan’s Arctic policy builds on the importance of science experience. We are proud of Arctic research and science and this is a strength and asset in [Japan’s] Arctic policy.
We expect a significant scientific agreement to be signed at the Fairbanks meeting, though we haven’t seen the full text yet of this agreement. We also hope that there will be some consideration by the ministers on the issue of observers. We hope the ministers consider the issue I have been discussing, the involvement of observers but, again the priority of the Fairbanks meeting will be scientific cooperation.
One of the things that makes the Arctic Council different from a lot of other regional groups is the role played by indigenous peoples. In addition to the eight permanent members, indigenous groups can ask for permanent representation. At present six currently do, though for logistical reasons their interests are often represented by the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat. How does Japan view the role of indigenous peoples in Arctic policy?
Support for indigenous peoples is important to Japan. We are very proud of Japanese researchers and businesses who are involved in such initiatives. For example, in the Sakha Republic a Japanese company is involved in an advanced wind power generation project. The technology used there is highly resilient to very severe cold and we hope to continue to expand that cooperation in the future and look at other ways to develop our relationship.