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Kazushige Kobayashi

Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding of the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, RIAC Visiting Research Fellow


Some argue that the American-Japanese relationship is akin to a tsar-servant hierarchy of command. However, I would describe their ties as that of a teacher-student relationship: anything students do has to be approved by their teacher, while students are allowed to ask questions, and as necessary, even can negotiate with the higher authority.

Some argue that the American-Japanese relationship is akin to a tsar-servant hierarchy of command. However, I would describe their ties as that of a teacher-student relationship: anything students do has to be approved by their teacher, while students are allowed to ask questions, and as necessary, even can negotiate with the higher authority.

Since 1945, Japanese foreign policy has been guided by a simple doctrine: follow the American lead. This has been defined through three principles: first, Japan relinquishes its aspiration for a sovereign military while the U.S. is responsible for Japan’s national security; second, Japan concentrates its effort on economic growth, out of which American military endeavors are supported; and lastly, Japan follows the American lead, anytime, anywhere, no matter what.

Why is it so important that Russia understand these principles? The answer is because, as we all know, even the most diligent student will eventually rebel against his teacher. The only issue is when and how. For Japan, the time is now, at least in part. As the Ukrainian crisis unfolds, it has become increasingly clear that Tokyo is spinning out of Washington’s orbit and pursuing an independent policy towards Moscow. This development is crucial to Russia, because the handling of Russian-Japanese relations at this defining moment will determine the path of our bilateral partnership in the decades to come. Above all, a crisis not only can widen the gulf between adversaries, but it can also reveal true partnerships. This article presents overwhelming evidence of Russian-Japanese solidarity in the midst of the ongoing crisis, drawing policy-relevant conclusions for the further development of Russian-Japanese relations [1].

Japanese Rebellion Against Washington: Why Now?

As the Ukrainian crisis unfolds, it has become increasingly clear that Tokyo is spinning out of Washington’s orbit and pursuing an independent policy towards Moscow.

The teacher-student relationship between the U.S. and Japan has been a kind of international contract: the U.S. relieves Japan from a heavy military burden, enabling Japan to achieve a period of miraculous economic growth, which made it the second (now third) largest economy in the world. In exchange, Japan obeys, pays for, and supports American foreign policy endeavors. This was a fair deal during the time of Japan’s miracle growth.

Today the situation is drastically different: since 1991, Japan has been in a two-decade-long recession with almost no growth [2]. During the period of strong economic growth, the Japanese thought: if we do not follow the American lead, our growth might end. Today, more and more Japanese are thinking: why should we follow the American lead if there is no longer growth. It even appears that American unilateral actions, including those taken in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, are destabilizing the world under the name of freedom and democracy [3].

Helped by an unprecedented surge of anti-Americanism, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which has been generally critical of American hegemony, won a landslide victory in the 2008 parliamentary elections for the first time in postwar Japanese history. Although the DPJ was ousted by the post-Fukushima parliamentary election in 2012 (it was accused of exploding the Fukushima nuclear reactors), a fundamental national question remained: who can assure stability in Japan and in the greater Eurasian region?

Larry Downing/Reuters
US President Barack Obama visits Japan,
April, 2014.

Sworn in for his second term, Prime Minister Abe’s answer was unconventional but rational: Russia. His decision to dramatically upgrade the Russian-Japanese partnership is an integral part of his grand strategy. Abe’s foreign and economic policy is distinctive in a sense that it seeks greater sovereign autonomy, where “greater sovereign autonomy” in Japan means carving out from under American influence. Politically, Abe wishes to strengthen the role of the Japanese Defense Forces (JDF), so that Japan’s reliance on one foreign power (the U.S.) can be gradually diminished. Economically, the prime minister aims to enhance Japan’s industrial foundations to revitalize the troubled economy. But in the post-Fukushima environment where nuclear power cannot be the sole source of energy security, Japan needs a reliable regional partner, preferably with large energy reserves and an aspiration to import Japanese advanced technology. Russia, therefore, is a natural choice for Tokyo.

Beginning in December 2012, Mr. Abe has met Russian President Vladimir Putin already five times, adding to various forms of new high-level talks. Since 1945, Japan has never been so passionate about Russia. In February 2014, the prime minister also willingly showed up in Sochi as the only G7 leader to celebrate Russia’s grand commitment to international solidarity. However, Mr. Abe also knows that overheating Russian-Japanese relations would provoke an emotional response from its “teacher” in Washington. This is a chief dilemma for Abe: he wishes to accelerate the partnership with Russia, while not forgoing the Japanese-American alliance.

In the post-Fukushima environment where nuclear power cannot be the sole source of energy security, Japan needs a reliable regional partner, preferably with large energy reserves and an aspiration to import Japanese advanced technology. Russia, therefore, is a natural choice for Tokyo.

The next question is then: what about abandoning Washington? This is not feasible option for two reasons. First, while the JDF is ranked as one of world’s top military organizations [4], it is trained to operate in close cooperation with American forces, never having assumed an independent operation without American involvement. It is highly unlikely that Washington would agree to the enhanced autonomy of the JDF, but even if such policy would be “approved,” it would take at least a decade to adjust and restructure the JDF. Second, the Japanese government is highly anxious of China’s assertive emergence, and the Japanese-American alliance remains Japan’s last hope to deter Chinese aggression in the region.

Japanese Rebellion Against Washington: How?

The Abe administration sees Russia as the last Eurasian guardian who is capable of upholding order and stability in the region in a way that will be beneficial to Japan. Mr. Abe is thus troubled: while he wishes to expand the Japanese partnership with Russia, Japan cannot possibly forgo the Japanese-American alliance in this turbulent century. Fundamentally, Japan needs both Russia and the U.S. to maintain regional and national stability in the days to come.

As a result, his “silent rebellion” against Washington began to take the shape of strategic diplomacy. Japan will keep maintain face with America by following its lead on the surface, but will conduct an independent policy less explicitly to ensure the maintenance of the Russian-Japanese partnership. This strategy has become increasingly apparent during the current Ukrainian crisis [5].

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As an emotional response to Crimea’s historic reunification with the Russian Federation, some Western countries made the hasty decision to impose non-UN coordinated sanctions on Russia, prohibiting twenty-three Russian policymakers from entering these countries [6]. Initially, Japan was unwilling to follow the Western mistaken leadership, expressing concern over the legitimacy of the revolutionary government in Kiev [7].

However, after the Crimean reunification, the situation changed. The Japanese government was gravely concerned by this reunification, fearing that this would serve as a precedent for the future Chinese annexation of the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands [8]. In addition, American pressure on the Japanese government was further elevated. Anxious of America’s “you are either with us or against us” doctrine, Mr. Abe unwillingly announced that Japan would be joining the Western sanctions [9]. However, he proposed that Japan would make its own independent sanction list of twenty-three Russian statesmen in reference to the Western list. The prime minister also insisted that the Japanese list would not be disclosed to the public. Furthermore, the Japanese government sent a special envoy to Moscow, Mr. Shoutarou Taniuchi (the Director-General of the Japanese National Security Council), to discuss the Ukrainian Crisis without Western policymakers twice on 14 March and 5 May. The second meeting on May was allegedly made in secret [10].

Abe’s strategic diplomacy continued. One of top personalities on the Western sanction list was Mr. Sergey Naryshkin, the Chairman of the State Duma. However, on June 4 2014, he was not only allowed to enter Japan, but also publicly delivered a message from President Putin at the Russian Festival in Tokyo. Furthermore, Mr. Naryshkin was invited to have an “unofficial” dinner meeting with key Japanese decision makers [11].

The case of Mr. Naryshkin presents the possibility that the secret list was non-existent in the first place or filled with irrelevant names, such as Joseph Stalin. Criticized by the West, Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary maintained that: “Our list does not include Mr. Naryshkin…. It is no problem because the Japanese government did not invite him.” [12] The U.S. government was particularly dissatisfied with the explanation that “the Japanese government did not invite him,” but he came anyway so we allowed him to enter and he happened to have had an unofficial dinner with top Japanese policymakers. The decision clearly demonstrated Japan’s departure from the position of the “obedient student.”

The validity of above analysis is only reinforced by the latest Japanese sanction on Russia. Announced on July 28, 2014 this “additional series of toughest sanctions” were mainly composed of “softest” measures: Japan will be newly boycotting Crimean wine while Europe has decided to impose a sector wide sanction, even encompassing most critical areas such as finance and energy.

Japan’s new sanction will also freeze financial assets of some Russian policymakers; yet, an anonymous Foreign Ministry official testified to a newspaper that “There is almost no Russian statesman who has substantial financial asset in Japan.” [13] As such, Japanese sanction does not signify Russophobia, it only manifests Abe’s political dilemma in between East and West.

Japanese Rebellion Against Washington: How Else?

As Russian relationship to the West has become increasingly fragile, Japan has strived to maintain economic and cultural ties with Moscow in a way that is unnoticeable to the Western community of states [14]. For example, the European Affairs Bureau at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now practically “Russianized,” serving to preserve Russian-Japanese solidarity during this time of hardship. The following organizational chart clearly demonstrates that Russia has become a priority for Japanese foreign policy, occupying four out of nine major divisions. The European Affairs Bureau now looks more like a Russian and Eurasian Bureau, although the sizes of each division are not identical.

Table 1.European Affairs Bureau, The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs [15]

Division Responsible Areas/ Fields
European Policy Division The EU institutions and general administrative coordination
Asia-Europe Cooperation Division Europe-Asian institutions and conferences
Western Europe Division France, Monaco, Andhra, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Luxemburg, Vatican, San Marino, Malta, the U.K., Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia
Central and South Eastern Europe Division Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova
Central Asia and Caucasus Division Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirgiz Republic, Tajikistan
Russian Division Russia
Liaison Office for Hokkaido, Russian Division Russian affairs in Hokkaido and its surrounding areas
Japan-Russia Economic Affairs Division Russian-Japanese economic relations

In addition, other dedicated governmental structures to promote Russian-Japanese partnership were established, such as the Russian-Japanese Organization on the Promotion of Trade and Investment. March 2014 marked a time of the highest level of tension between Russia and the West, when Crimea was successfully reunited with Russia. In the midst of the crisis, Western countries urged Japan to boycott the 6th Russia-Japan Investment Forum. Japan assured the West that Forum would be “downsized,” excluding economic ministers who initially were planning to be present at the Forum. This was a necessary compromise to save Western face; on March 19, 2014, however, the Forum was successfully held in Tokyo, attended by more than 1,000 delegates and high-ranking officials (around 250 from Russia and 750 from Japan) and deputy ministers, resulting in a series of constructive agreements [16].

Japanese Public’s Responses to the Ukrainian Crisis

The Abe administration sees Russia as the last Eurasian guardian who is capable of upholding order and stability in the region in a way that will be beneficial to Japan.

When the revolution happened in Kiev, the mainstream Japanese response was quite simple: “That democratic revolution again,” with some recalling the American invasion of Iraq, Color Revolutions, and the Arab Spring [17]. But the case of Crimea was clearly different. The Japanese public was awfully frightened by the possibility that this action would serve as a historical precedent for seemingly territory hungry China. Partially due to Abe’s more assertive foreign security policy, Chinese-Japanese relations have seen an unprecedented deterioration in recent years. Since March, therefore, the critical public view towards Russia has gradually prevailed in the Japanese media, siding with the popular anxiety.

However, in the absence of prevalent anti-Russian propaganda, the Japanese response to the case of the Malaysian airplane has been more moderate and neutral. Undoubtedly, it made headlines in the major Japanese newspapers for a week, mourning the lost lives. Nevertheless, in contrast to Western media, Japanese reporters drew more attention to the possible misconduct of the Malaysian airline. For example, citing a British source, the Sankei News reads: “Two flight attendants refused to serve on the downed plane, having criticized the airline that the flight path was not safe. The airline did not change the path, even though some of their experienced pilots were also alarmed about the insecurity on the route.” [18] The report also cited that Western airlines had already changed their flight paths. Another major Japanese newspaper, Mainichi Shinbun, reported that the U.S. had become so desperate to prove the hypothetical “Russian crime.” “However,” the newspaper stressed, “the credibility of American information is not established… because the U.S. suffers from its own ‘criminal record’ on having deceptively exaggerated the Iraqi threat to justify the initiation of Iraq War...” [19] Indeed, American credibility has dramatically declined in Japan in recent years. The Japanese are well-aware that today’s Japanese prosperity was only possible with American assurance; however, many have begun to think that the past glory alone cannot justify the U.S. government’s hegemonic behavior in the international arena [20].

Conclusion

As Russian relationship to the West has become increasingly fragile, Japan has strived to maintain economic and cultural ties with Moscow in a way that is unnoticeable to the Western community of states.

The above analysis draws three key conclusions. First, Japanese sanctions are made out of political imperative, and not of anti-Russianism. In some Western countries, hostile foreign policy towards Russia reflects their policymakers’ Russophobia, delusional paranoia, and an anachronistic mindset of not being able to stop chasing the past Soviet phantoms. But Tokyo is not driven by these ungrounded fears [21].

Second, because Japanese sanctions are not driven by anti-Russian sentiments, the room is still wide open to maintain and even deepen the Russian-Japanese partnership. That said, instruments to advance the partnership need to shift from a top-down to a bottom-up approach. In the near future, some important political meetings between Russian and Japanese policymakers might be canceled or postponed; this is precisely why the significance of commercial, cultural, and sub-governmental (prefectural and ministerial) interaction will increase. Summits are not everything.

Third and lastly, sanctions might be welcomed by those sitting in Washington and elsewhere, but the most fundamental question remains: How do these sanctions help Ukraine open a new path to prosperity? If the Western aim is to harm the Russian economy and restore a feeling of national superiority, then unilateral sanctions may be well useful; but if the ultimate goal is to save Ukraine from the deepening chaos by sanctioning Russia, there is no hope. Since Russia is one of the most important trading partners for Ukraine, harming the Russian economy will only accelerate the economic chaos in Ukraine.

A most important lesson from the World Wars is that hegemonic sanctions do not work, particularly those imposed on great powers without a wide international agreement. Hitler came to power thanks to the punitive measures imposed by the Versailles Treaty. The sanctions on Iran have only disappointed the Iranian population, helping a surge of anti-Americanism even among the most liberal Iranian thinkers. As international history has repeatedly manifested, sanctions without a UN authorization are not a policy of justice nor prestige; they are a policy of the incompetent, who is not capable of coming up with a more constructive forward-looking solution.

If the West is aiming to create an iron chain of encirclement around Russia, Japan is, and always will be, that chain’s weakest link. A true international partnership is about keeping our conversation open even at the time of the most challenging crisis. In this regard, the Russian-Japanese partnership has shown an impressive degree of mutual understanding. Sanctions come and go, but solidarity will stay and deepen.

1. For a more detailed examination of Japanese sanctions on Russia, see Kobayashi, K. (2014). Opening The Sanction Magicbox: Myth of Japanese Sanction Against Russia. RIAC Blog “In-Between East and West,” 21 July 2014, /en/blogs/kazushige-kobayashi/?id_4=1299.

2. Ichimura, S. (2012). What Lessons Do the Lost Two Decades of the Japanese Economy Give to the Other Economies?.Working Paper No.59, Center on Japanese Economy and Business, Columbia University, http://academiccommons.columbia.edu/catalog/ac%3A146868.

3. See, for example, Bacevich, A. J. (2008). The limits of power: The end of American exceptionalism. Macmillan.

4. BBC. 2013. Japan boosts military forces to counter China. BBC News Asia, 17 December 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-25411653.

5. Sankei News. (2014). 別働隊超えた“第1外務省” NSC事務局 プーチン氏側近と会談 中国にも接触 ソウルで意見交換 隠密外交フル稼働 [NSC Secretariat meets with Mr. Putin’s aide, keeps in touch with China and exchanges opinions in Seoul, the full-initiation of the secret diplomacy]. 14 June 2014, http://sankei.jp.msn.com/politics/news/140614/plc14061411080016-n1.htm.

6. Note that, hereafter, ‘sanctions’ refer to the West’s unilateral sanctions on Russia imposed beginning in March 2014. This should be distinguished from other forms of sanctions based on a wider international agreement, such as UN-coordinated targeted sanctions on transnational criminal organizations. On UN targeted sanctions, see, for example, Biersteker, T.J & Eckert, S.E. (2006). Strengthening Targeted Sanctions through Fair and Clear Procedures. Brown University Watson Institute for International Studies.

7. This choice made sense to Tokyo: in Japan, virtually no tradition of street protests exists. In the eyes of Japanese public, street protestors are usually associated with ultra-nationalists (who call for the restoration of the Japanese Empire), or ultra-leftists (who call for revolution based on the Marxist-Leninist ideology).

8. The Islands are located between Okinawa and Taiwan and are effectively controlled by Japan, but formerly were a part of Chinese territory one thousand years ago.

9. Likewise, the European Union’s new sanctions against Russia should be also understood as a matter of Transatlantic economic relations. A primary reason why the U.S. government is so insistent on a European sanction is that if the U.S. remains a sole nation imposing unilateral sanctions on Russia, this would give a competitive advantage to European firms who are not restrained by these punitive measures. We observed the same trend during the global financial meltdown: whenever the U.S. made new financial regulations, the rest of the world was urged to adopt these measures immediately. Without global resonance, American business would lose its competitiveness.

10. Sankei News. (2014). 谷内局長、露安保会議書記と協議 [Director-General Taniuchi to discuss with Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Patrushev].14 March 2014, http://sankei.jp.msn.com/world/news/140314/erp14031423150014-n1.htm; Sankei News. (2014). 別働隊超えた“第1外務省” NSC事務局 プーチン氏側近と会談 中国にも接触 ソウルで意見交換 隠密外交フル稼働 [NSC Secretariat meets with Mr. Putin’s aide, keeps in touch with China and exchanging opinions in Seoul, the full-initiation of the secret diplomacy]. 14 June 2014,

11.中央日報 [Chuou Nippou]. (2014). 安倍首相、米国入国禁止のプーチン側近にメッセージ送り“勅使接待”[Prime Minister Abe sends a message to Putin’s aide who are banned to enter the U.S., treating him as an “envoy”], 4 June 2014, http://japanese.joins.com/article/091/186091.html. At the Festival, he was attended by the deputy of Mr. Abe. These “key decision makers” included Mr. Bunmei Ibuki (the Chairman of the Lower Congress), Mr. Masaaki Yamazaki (the Chairman of the Upper Congress).

12. Ibid.

13. Asahi Shinbun. (2014). 日本がロシア追加制裁発表 欧米と板挟み、配慮も [Japan announces additional sanction on Russia -A dilemma between the West and Russia, consideration made for Russia]. 28 July 2014, http://www.asahi.com/articles/ASG7X5R4MG7XUTFK00J.html.

14. In fact, the deepening of Russian-Japanese relations was initiated by Abe in 2013, when the Kuril Island territorial negotiations were resumed, the visa regime was eased, and the presence of Japanese firms in Russia was dramatically increased. Since then, the institutionalization of Russian-Japanese relations has strategically taken place where exposure to American scurrility is minimal. ITAR-TASS. (2013). Agreement between Russia and Japan on streamlining visa procedures takes effect on Wednesday. 30 October 2013, http://en.itar-tass.com/world/704547; Reuters. (2014).

Japan's embrace of Russia under threat with Ukraine crisis. 5 March 2014, http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/03/05/ukraine-crisis-japan-idINDEEA2404R20140305.

16. Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum. (2014). 6th Russia-Japan Investment Forum “Opening new areas for Russian-Japanese investment cooperation.”SPIEF Events, 19 March 2014, https://www.forumspb.com/en/2014/sections/29/materials/216/activities/12.Upon the Western request, the official visit of Russian economic minister was canceled, but this certainly did not stop Japan from deepening its economic integration with Russia.

17. Unlike Western citizens, the Japanese public is generally dismissive of exporting democracy, because in Japan, stability is higher virtue than freedom. This is why our national system is still based on life-long employment, with many Japanese willing to work for the same company for half a century. In the eyes of many Japanese, a revolution only signifies instability, which should happen at most once or twice every century. Reflecting this negative public sentiment, the Japanese government was the last to recognize the legitimacy of the revolutionary government in Kiev.

18. Sankei News. (2014). マレーシア機撃墜撃墜機の2乗務員、ルート危険と勤務拒否 [The downing of the Malaysian airliner, two crews refused to serve for the downed plane insisting that the flight path was dangerous]. 20 July 2014, http://sankei.jp.msn.com/world/news/140720/erp14072022540012-n1.htm.

19. Mainichi Shinbun. (2014). <マレーシア機撃墜>米が「ロシア関与」情報流す露へ圧力 [<The downing of the Malaysian airliner> The U.S. provides information concerning “Russian involvement,” pressuring Russia]. 23 July 2014, http://mainichi.jp/select/news/20140724k0000m030048000c.html.

20. For example, between 1972 and 2011, 124 cases of violence against women were committed by American soldiers in Okinawa alone, excluding other lesser crimes such as property invasion. The U.S. government almost always defends these soldiers, sometimes even refusing to admit Japan’s jurisdiction over the cases. Japan Watchdog for Accuracy in News-Reporting. (2012). 「沖縄米兵の性暴力事件 1972年以降7件」 NHK誤り認める [NHK admits that the previous report stating American soldiers’ sexual crimes in Okinawa is only seven since 1972]. 5 November 2012, http://gohoo.org/false_reports/012/.

21. On 28 July, for example, Japan announced “additional series of toughest sanctions” on Russia such as banning the import of Crimean wine. The new sanctions will also freeze the financial assets of some Russian officials, although an unnamed Foreign Ministry official testified that “There is almost no Russian statesman who has substantial assets in Japan.” Asahi Shinbun. (2014). 日本がロシア追加制裁発表 欧米と板挟み、配慮も [Japan announces additional sanctions on Russia - A dilemma between the West and Russia, consideration made for Russia]. 28 July 2014, http://www.asahi.com/articles/ASG7X5R4MG7XUTFK00J.html.

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