In Between East and West

Opening The Sanction Magicbox: Myth of Japanese Sanction Against Russia

July 21, 2014

Kazushige Kobayashi is a doctoral student in International Relations at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Switzerland, and a research fellow with the Europe-Asia Programme at the Balkan Security Agenda in Serbia. He holds Bachelor of Economics from Tohoku University in Japan, Master in International Affairs from the Geneva Graduate Institute, and has also studied at University of California at Davis and Moscow State Institute of International Relations.



The downing of the Malaysian MH17 has shaken the whole world. The West seized this moment to impose further sanctions on Russia, although a good number of professional analysts worldwide are warning for making a hasty conclusion. Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the leading American think-tank Center for Strategic and International Affairs, rightly stressed on 18 July that “the fact this is a horrible human tragedy should not lead to rushed judgment as to motive, guilt, or intent. Far too little data is available, and many of the facts we do know indicate that the environment may well have led to mistakes.”[1] The same can be said for sanction, which seems to have become Washington’s favorite toy to play with in these days.


      I was quite surprised when the Japanese government announced it would join the Western-devised sanction against Russia after the reunification of Crimea. This move seemed very mysterious at glance; Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been a chief partner of President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin since Abe’s second administration was launched in December 2012. The prime minister has met with President Putin four times in 2013 only, and has also initiated various high-level talks with Russian ministers and presidential aides to date. The prime minister also willingly showed up in Sochi as the only G7 leader to celebrate Russia’s commitment to international friendship, while other irresponsible G6 leaders decided to stay in during the time of the Sochi Olympic.


      Considering Mr. Abe’s enthusiasm to further Japanese partnership with Russia, Japan’s joining in the Western sanction appeared quite puzzling at first. However, as time goes by, it has become increasingly clear that the Japanese government is not actually sanctioning Russia; quite contrary, it is planning to actively enlarge Russian-Japanese partnership through diplomatic and economic efforts. Here in this article, I deliver you some of most recent developments in Russian-Japanese relations, which is, unsurprisingly, largely neglected by the Western media.



Japanese Sanction is A Myth

As an emotional response to Crimea’s historic reunification with the Russian Federation, some of Western countries made a hasty decision to impose a coordinated sanction on Russia, prohibiting 23 Russian policymakers from entering these countries. Initially, Japan was unwilling to follow the Western misleadership, expressing its concern over the legitimacy of the revolutionary government in Kyiv that emerged in March.[2] However, after the Crimean reunification, American pressure on the Japanese government dramatically heightened and finally Mr. Abe announced that Japan was joining the Western move. However, Mr. Abe’s decision was that Japan makes its own independent sanction list of 23 Russian statesmen in reference to the Western list. He insisted that, unlike that of Western countries, the Japanese list will not be disclosed to public. This was a diplomatic trick to save the face of the U.S. while maintaining a close tie with Russia. Frankly speaking, there are two possibilities: one is that the Japanese list does not exist at all in reality, whilst the other is that it does exist, but contains names such as Joseph Stalin and Ivan the Terrible.


      There is a firm evidence to believe so. One of top personalities on the Western sanction list was Mr. Sergey Yevgenyevich Naryshkin, the Chairman of the State Duma and is a closest aide to President Putin. 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. According to Chuo Nippou, a major Japanese newspaper, he expressed his wish to advance Russian-Japanese relations, while the deputy of Prime Minister Abe, Hiroshige Sekou, responded reciprocally to the message.


      But this is not all. Mr. Naryshkin did not only enter Japan smoothly, but also was invited to have “an unofficial dinner meeting” at the official government residence, along with Mr. Bunmei Ibuki, the Chairman of the Lower Congress and Mr. Masaaki Yamazaki, the Chairman of the Upper Congress, and Mr. Yoshirou Mori, former Prime Minister. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. allegedly criticized the decision to “unofficially invite Mr. Naryshkin to an official meeting.”[3]  The U.S. was also highly frustrated that the Japanese government sent an envoy, Mr. Shoutarou Taniuchi (the Director-General of the Japanese National Security Council) to Moscow on 5 May to discuss the Ukrainian Crisis in absence of Western policymakers. Although the contents of the “secret” talks were not disclosed, he could have said: “Russia, be assured, we are unwillingly devising a sanction under the Western pressure but the first name on our sanction list is Joseph Stalin and the rest of Soviet ghosts follows.”



Russian State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin warmly welcomed in Tokyo,  June 2014 Photo:


      This sounds like a joke, but by the fact that Mr. Naryshkin could have a meeting with top Japanese policymakers indicates that this cannot be so far from the truth. When accused of the “betrayal” by the West, Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary answered: “Our list does not include Mr. Naryshkin.” and “It is no problem because the Japanese government did not invite him.”[4] Very interesting, how come a sanction list that is designed to punish the closest aides of the Russian government does not include the Closest Aide-in Chief? Obviously the U.S. government was equally dissatisfied with the Japanese 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 at the official government residence. The decision clearly demonstrated Japan’s departure from the position of the “51st state” of the U.S. in search for a regional partnership based on mutual respect.



Cracking the Sanction Webs

Some Western policymakers are obsessively spending every minute of their time to enlarge webs of the coordinated sanction on Russia, while China, India, and other major nations wisely choose to stay out of this hopeless trial. Major Japanese papers have reported development of the current crisis in a more balanced manner, in contrast to some of the value-laden and revolution-fanatic Western media. Asahi Shinbun on 6 June 2014, for example, released an article entitled “外したロシア、存在感 (Russia’s Presence Highlighted by Its Absence at G7).” Several other papers have also described the exclusion as a dishonorable retreat of Western countries to their comfort zone in the midst of crisis.[5]


      We must be reminded that there are always those who try to maximize their personal gain, politically, economically, or socially, by manufacturing an image of enmity. My key message is that Russia is no alone. And any attempt to encircle Russia –a highly globalized center of world politics– dooms to fall apart in the long-run. Indeed, the cracks are already becoming evident. For example, while Germany joined the sanction movement, Der Spiegel, a German magazine, reported a survey in March 2014 that those Germans who believed that “the Crimean reunification should be allowed” were 54% of total surveyed population.[6] Germany’s public broadcasting, ARD, also presented a result of a survey last month asking what should be Germany’s policy concerning the Ukrainian crisis: 49% answered that “Balancing between Russia and the West” while 45% responded that “solidarity with the West” should be Germany’s priority.[7] Former Prime Minister Helmut Schmidt also famously commented that if a country were put in a similar situation, it would be very likely that most leaders act as President Putin did.



Threat Is Opportunity

The Western sanction on Russia, however ineffective it is in the long-run, has also presented extraordinary economic opportunities for Japan and other Asian partners. On 19 March 2014, the 6th Japan-Russian Investment Forum was successfully held in Tokyo, where more than 12 agreements were signed between Russian and Japanese firms and research institutions. [8] At first, the Japanese government was under a high pressure from the West to abandon the forum; however, by prioritizing economic solidarity with Russia, Japan has demonstrated its sovereign independence. Japan is also preparing for President Putin’s visit planned for this autumn, which would make the 6th Russia-Japan summit during last two years.


      Commercially, the sanction has opened a venue of entry for Japanese firms that were previously not able to compete with major Western companies. For example, VISA and MASTERCARD dominate Russian consumer credit market with most market researches indicating that their combined share is around 90-95%. But the situation has changed dramatically since the U.S. government indicated its plan to economically sanction Russia and these two credit giants expressed their willing to follow Washington’s command. Gazprom is often criticized by Western policymakers for being Kremlin’s “energy weapon,” but frankly speaking, what Washington and Brussels do is not different and there is a rich history of Western weponization of private firms to serve for its interests. Many Russians were confused and frustrated by the alleged decision; as a result, they have already begun a search for a safer alternative. Japanese credit company JSB rightly seized this moment and revealed its long-debated plan to enter the Russian credit market. At the same time, Chinese firm UNIONPAY has also strengthened its presence thanks to the sanction wind.[9]  Although it is highly unlikely that these Asian credit firms replace VISA and MASTERCARD in the short-run, they surely can relief Russian consumers by providing an alternative choice.


      In a world of high global interdependence, strong commercial interest can easily crack any seemingly fool-proof sanction wall. This is especially true in the landscape of the European division. In an opinion column at the Moscow Times, Lithuanian commentators Vytautas Keršanskas and Linas Kojala recently proclaimed that “France’s decision not to suspend the sale of its four Mistral warships to Russia and train more than 400 Russian specialists is intolerable.”[10] I am sorry for that, but the democratic responsibility of the French government is not to comfort anger-flamed Lithuanian politicians, but to make an independent choice to ensure prosperity of the French Fifth Republic. France’s training of Russian sailors and its sale of two Mistral warships to Russia together constitutes a 1.2 billion-euro deal that would “represent 5 million hours of work and generate 1,000 jobs for a four-year period.”[11] True, Russia is not the most globalized economy and its structure is rather skewed to energy production. Yet, the economic growth and modernization project undertaken by Putin and Medvedev administration made it an integral and indispensable part of world economy. These Japanese and French examples clearly demonstrate that now is the time to recall the famous words of President Clinton: “It’s the economy, stupid.”




The Fallbacks of the Sanction Storm

If a Western aim is to harm Russian economy, then sanctions might be useful; but if their ultimate aim is to change the course of Russian foreign policy, sanctions can be well counterproductive. Half a century ago, the U.S. and the troubled Europe encircled Japanese Empire in a hope to change the course of its actions. At the time, the imperial Tokyo was occupied by a government characterized by a mixture of anti-war liberals, balancers, and ultra-nationalists. At the turn of the 20th century, most of these imperial leaders were pro-Western “extremist,” with some of them even having claimed that Japan should have made English or French as an official national language. But as a result of the Western sanctions, ultra-nationalists increasingly augmented their voice within the government, marginalizing the influence of liberals. Of course, Japanese Empire then and the Russian Federation now are facing different situations with different types of political leaders; but an important lesson we should keep in mind is that sanction, austerity, encirclement, and any other kind of punitive measures only advance political momentum of ideological ultras.

      So far, President Putin has managed to put down proposals for extreme policies such as annexing the whole Eastern Ukraine or using force against Ukraine to protect the rights and lives of Russians. Nonetheless, if the sanction shower continues, there is no guarantee that he will be able to hold that fort. A recent survey conducted by the U.S. Gallup Poll shows that President Putin’s approval rating is 83 percent, while those Russians who feel favorably about the European and American leadership plunged to only 6 percent and 4 percent, respectively.[12] While the democratic support for President Putin’s policy remains at the record-high, the sanction storm only serves to drive away hearts and minds of the Russians in the long-run.


[1] Cordesman, A.H. (2014). The Downing of the Malaysian Airliner: Avoid Rushing to Judgment. CSIS Commentary, 18 July 2014,

[2] 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,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] 朝日新聞 [Asashi Shinbun].(2014). 外したロシア、存在感 ウクライナ問題、追加制裁に温度差 G7閉幕 [Russia’s Presence Highlighted by Its Absence at G7  At the closing of G7, divergence exists over the Ukrainian crisis and sanction ]. 6 June 2014,

[6]  産経ニュース [Sankei News]. (2014).ドイツ国民、露のクリミア併合に半数以上が「理解」の衝撃 [Over a half of Germans “accept” Russia’s Crimean annexation], 28 April 2014,

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Sixth Japan-Russian Investment Forum,

[9] Russia NOW. (2014). JCBがロシア進出を計画 [JCB plans to enter Russian market], 27 May 2014,

[10] Keršanskas, V & Kojala, L. (2014). How the EU Can Make Putin Play by Its Rules. Moscow Times, 25 June 2014,

[11] Tétrault-Farber, G. (2014). Mistral Warship Deal Between France and Russia is About Economy, Not Ethics. Moscow Times, 30 June 2014,

[12] Moscow Times. (2014). Putin's Approval Rating Highest in Years, U.S. Gallup Poll Finds. 20 July 2014,



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