One of the most remarkable outcomes to emerge from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is Tokyo’s tough response. The Japanese government of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has imposed an unprecedented level of economic sanctions against Russia, fully aligned with Japan’s G7 partners, including a freezing of the assets of Russia’s Central Bank and individual sanctions against President Vladimir Putin himself and those close to him. The measures represent a stark contrast to the response following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, when the Japanese government was led by former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.
Tokyo also expelled nine Russian diplomats in April 2022 in response to revelations about mass killings in Bucha, a city on the outskirts of Kyiv. Tokyo’s series of tough actions have taken many Americans and Europeans – not to mentioned Japanese themselves – by surprise. Nor did Russia seem to have anticipated this.
There are four major factors driving Kishida’s robust response. First, the sheer scale of Russia’s actions – the destruction of Ukrainian cities, the large number of civilian casualties and mounting evidence of war crimes across the country – makes inaction impossible. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been heavily reported in the Japanese media, with TV coverage daily since the aggression started. Kishida has repeatedly criticized the Russian aggression as something that “disrupts the very foundation of the international order.” There is no room even for the usual Russian-sympathizers to justify Moscow’s behavior this time. Ordinary pacifist-oriented Japanese have been shocked to see what the Russian forces are doing in Ukraine, and this has prompted public support for the Ukrainians.
Second, the link between the situation in Europe and that in East Asia is at the forefront of the minds of policymakers in Tokyo. Kishida argues that we need to prevent the “wrong message” from being delivered to the international community. In his Guildhall speech in London in May 2022, Kishida argued that “The invasion of Ukraine is a challenge that is not confined to Europe – it is a matter for the whole world, including Asia. Japan will work together with other nations and take actions with resolute determination so that we would not be sending out the wrong message to the international community; so that using force to unilaterally change the status quo shall never be repeated.” While he did not refer to China by name, there is no doubt that Kishida had China and a possible Taiwan contingency in mind.
In fact, there has been a lot of talk in Japan suggesting that Russia’s war against Ukraine would spur China to attempt to seize Taiwan by force. Beijing’s calculations are obviously more complicated than that; Xi Jinping needs to tread extremely cautiously this year ahead of the Party Congress, where he is expected to start an unprecedented third term in power. Moreover, Russia’s dismal military performance in Ukraine has shown how difficult it is to conduct such a major operation, while the high degree of unity that Europe, the United States and Japan have shown in their response is surely cause for concern in Beijing.
When it comes to the link between the war in Ukraine and Asia, Tokyo’s message is clear: In return for Japan standing so firmly with the West on this occasion, it expects the international community, particularly Europe and the United States, to stand equally firmly alongside Japan should any future conflict erupt in East Asia. In this context, Tokyo has also reached out to other countries in Asia in a bid to get more countries on board against Russia.
Third, Kishida’s response can also be seen as an antithesis to Abe’s reconciliatory approach to Moscow. Abe repeatedly avoided taking tough actions in response to Russian aggression, including the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in the Donbas region in 2014 and 2015, or its uses of the weapons-grade nerve agent called Novichok to kill a former spy in the U.K. and silence an opposition leader in Russia.
Instead, Abe consistently prioritized relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and tried not to antagonize Moscow, hoping to be able to advance negotiations on the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories and a peace treaty. Simply put, Abe did not want his Russia agenda to be disrupted by what Putin was doing in other parts of the world. As a result, Tokyo imposed only nominal sanctions against the annexation of Crimea and took no action at all in response to the uses of Novichok.
Abe remains active in Japanese politics, and he and those who are close to him represent a challenges to Kishida’s power base within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). While Kishida’s commitment to strong action against Russia is believed to be genuine, it has, at least inadvertently, turned out to be a way to differentiate himself from Abe and delegitimize his predecessor’s approach to Moscow.
Fourth, and quite importantly, his strong public support enables Kishida’ to take a tough position. A Kyodo poll in April shows that 73.7 percent of Japanese support tough economic sanctions against Russia, even if in incurs an economic cost for Japan. The overall approval rating of the government has also risen over the past few months, good news in the run-up to the Upper House election in July.
Looking ahead, there are two challenges that could make it increasingly difficult for the Kishida government to maintain its strong stance. First, the level of public and media interest in the war in Ukraine could wane over time. Indeed, signs are already emerging of a decline in public attention. Second, the economic cost associated with the sanctions on Russia will be increasingly felt by the public in the coming months, not least rising energy prices and increasing concerns about electricity supply during the hot summer months. Public opinion could shift at any time.
To ensure that Tokyo’s position is sustainable, Kishida will need to redouble his efforts in the coming months to expain why severe sanctions are not only for the sake of the Ukrainian people, but are also in Japan’s own interests, even if they do have implications for people’s daily lives.
TSURUOKA Michito is an associate professor at Keio University, Japan.