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Can Japan Thread the Needle on the Israel-Hamas Conflict?

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Can Japan Thread the Needle on the Israel-Hamas Conflict?

The geopolitical picture increasingly resembles that of 1973 – a traumatic experience that Japan wants to avoid reliving.

Can Japan Thread the Needle on the Israel-Hamas Conflict?
Credit: Depositphotos

The October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel sparked a chain reaction that is being felt well beyond the region. Most Group of Seven (G-7) members quickly condemned Hamas and unequivocally defended Israel’s right to defend itself, though one country initially struck a somewhat different tone: Japan. 

To be sure, Tokyo did denounce Hamas’ assaults and the harm they brought to civilians in Israel almost immediately. However, unlike its G-7 partners, which focused on the issue of Israel’s defense, the Japanese government emphasized the need for both parties to exercise maximum restraint and expressed concerns over Tel Aviv’s airstrikes.

It took Prime Minister Kishida Fumio four days to qualify Hamas’s attacks as terrorist acts. When Foreign Minister Kamikawa Yoko spoke to her Israeli counterpart days later, she also called the assaults “terror attacks” and supported Israel’s right to defend itself in accordance with international law.

Traditionally, Japan has maintained closer relations with Palestine than Israel. The Japanese position on the Palestinian issue has been marked by consistent support for a two-state solution, from which a condemnation of Israeli occupation activities and provision of financial aid to Palestine have derived. The cumulative assistance dispensed to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in the 1994-2020 period made Japan the seventh largest state donor in the world and by far the first among non-Arab Asian countries. 

Beyond humanitarian factors, Tokyo’s Palestine policy has also been driven by strategic considerations involving the wider Middle East due to Japan’s reliance on crude oil from Arab countries, which in 2019 amounted to nearly 90 percent.

While cool but largely stable, Japan-Israel relations have faced occasional problems, such as when Tokyo adhered to the Arab boycott against Israel in the 1970s and refused to sell advanced equipment and technology to Tel Aviv. Although the close ties between North Korea and Syria represent a threat to both Japanese and Israeli interests, Tokyo refrained from security and technological cooperation with Israel until the early 2010s.

That began to change with the advent of the second Abe Shinzo administration in late 2012, when Tokyo upgraded its ties with Tel Aviv in some areas. Among other steps, the two countries signed a cybersecurity partnership, agreed to strengthen defense cooperation, and established a politico-military dialogue framework. 

Today, the most obvious Japanese interest involved remains energy security. Over-reliant as it is on Middle Eastern oil, an immediate concern for Japan is the maintenance of a stable outflow of the commodity from the region. Not coincidentally, Kishida has held meetings on the situation in Gaza with the heads of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, the top three oil exporters to Japan, and agreed to coordinate humanitarian responses with them. Highlighting a direct interest in the Palestinian issue too, consultations were also conducted with Jordan’s King Abdullah on the same day. 

An eventual spillover of the Israel-Hamas crisis into a regional war, with Iran and Hezbollah joining the conflict, would likely disrupt the energy supply to a scale unacceptable for Japan. Aggravating this risk is the fact that Israel’s overwhelming and disproportionate military response is quickly radicalizing the Muslim world against Tel Aviv. As the United States doubles down on its unconditional support for Israel with the backing of various European states, the geopolitical picture increasingly resembles that of 1973 – a nothing short of traumatic experience for the Japanese. As such, Tokyo’s neutral stance in the crisis is partially intended to hedge it against an eventual second oil embargo, while it calls for oil-production states to boost production and stabilize the market. 

A less evident issue at stake for Japan concerns the further fragmentation of the international community. The end of the superpower rivalry and the outbreak of the Gulf War contributed to a relative diversification of Japanese interests in the region, adding a larger strategic dimension that goes beyond energy security. One driver of this change was the assessment that, as a developed country with vast economic and technological resources, Japan should play an international role that was more commensurate with its status. 

The recent Middle East trip by Kishida, the first by a Japanese leader since 2020, revealed Tokyo’s willingness to play a greater regional role, including as a normative power. For the first time in history, Japan raised the international rule of law issue in talks with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. This move highlighted an ambition to play an active role in strengthening certain international norms in the region, one of which is non-proliferation. 

Tokyo has long-standing good relations with Iran that have seen little impact from the nuclear issue. Although Japan implemented sanctions against Tehran due to pressure from Washington, this did not seem to impact the generally cordial bilateral relations. Aware of Iran’s influence over Hamas, Kishida held phone talks with President Ebrahim Raisi and asked for his support to defuse the situation in Gaza. 

The complex web of foreign relations in which Israel and Hamas are embedded means that the escalation of their war has implications for international geopolitics. To put it simply, it can be summed as pitting the industrial liberal democracies led by the United States against a group of countries under illiberal regimes, of which China and Russia are the main powers, with the former fundamentally supporting Israel and the latter leaning toward Palestine. 

Of course, the concrete situation is more nuanced, but what is important to note here is that Israel is Washington’s core ally in the Middle East while Iran has become a close partner of Beijing and Moscow. Between these two regional poles, there are the Arab nations informally led by Saudi Arabia, a U.S.-leaning autocracy that nonetheless enjoys good relations with China and Russia and, at least until very recently, regarded Iran as an existential threat. 

With these pieces on the geopolitical chessboard, Japan fears that an escalation of the ongoing conflict could worsen the emerging bloc confrontation in global security dynamics. Such a scenario would not only be a problem in terms of economic effects but would also force Tokyo to take sides more clearly on an issue where it strongly wishes to play a balanced role due to the stakes involved. 

This calculus is linked to Tokyo’s third major interest at stake in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The Middle East is a region where Japan has traditionally acted with relative strategic autonomy from the constraints of the U.S. alliance system, striking a balance between its relations with Washington and interests in the Muslim world, though leaning towards the latter even before the 1973 “oil shock.”

In the current crisis, this tendency has so far been manifested in Japan’s diplomatic articulation with Iran and support for a Brazilian-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution that called for a humanitarian pause of Israel’s bombing of Gaza, which the U.S. vetoed. Should the ongoing war spiral into a larger conflict between two “blocs,” however, Tokyo’s room for maneuver will be significantly reduced, forcing the Japanese government to unequivocally take sides.

Despite the negative economic and diplomatic consequences that it would bring, it is a given that Japan would side with Israel in such a radicalized scenario, including because the countries that pose the biggest challenges to its security – China, North Korea, and Russia – would support Iran and Hamas. Efforts to prevent “losing” the Global South to China, which Japan had been pushing for well before Hamas’ attacks, would likely be taken to another level. 

Since taking office, Kishida has made boosting ties with developing nations one of his administration’s priorities, having brought the matter to the G-7 as Japan holds the bloc’s presidency this year. The problem for Tokyo is that, historically, the Palestinian cause has an exceptional appeal across the developing world. This is reflected in the fact that almost the entirety of the 140 countries that recognize the State of Palestine, which Japan does not, belongs to the Global South. Japan’s careful approach to the Israel-Hamas War also takes this variable into account, and Tokyo’s standing in the developing world would likely suffer a blow if it were to explicitly back Israel.

For now, Japan is managing to walk a fine line between Israel and Palestine, keeping close contact with both parties as well as its G-7 partners, the Arab states, and Iran. At the same time, the very scenario that Tokyo wishes to avoid is being chiefly written by none other than its American ally.

The United States’ unwavering support for Israel’s excesses is drastically escalating the humanitarian and geopolitical situation while diplomatically benefitting China and Russia, who are exploiting Washington’s extreme position to appear as responsible players who defend international law. For Japan, continuing to balance between conflicting interests is starting to look increasingly difficult.