For a decade, Japan has pursued a policy of tireless engagement with Russia, seeking to raise all areas of bilateral relations to a new level in the hope that this would lead to a breakthrough in the countries’ territorial dispute and lessen Japan’s regional security concerns. The merits of this approach were already in question, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made it untenable. This will necessitate a major rethink of Japan’s Russia policy.
Abe’s “new approach”
On the very day of the election in December 2012 that returned him to power, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo made explicit that relations with Russia would be a leading priority of his foreign policy. This was driven by his urgent desire to resolve the territorial dispute over the Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands which were seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War II but continue to be claimed by Japan as its Northern Territories. The failure to resolve this dispute means that, despite the passage of over 75 years, the sides are yet to conclude a peace treaty.
In seeking to finally settle this issue, Abe no doubt had an eye on his legacy, yet he was also motivated by strategic considerations. Specifically, his calculation was that, freed of the tensions provoked by the territorial issue, Japan-Russia relations would be able to fully normalize. In this way, Japan would be able to establish stable relations along its northern frontier and neutralize the danger of Moscow and Beijing forging a united front against Japan.
In pursuit of this agenda, Abe agreed on a “new approach” to relations with Russia during a visit to Sochi in May 2016. It later became apparent that the central feature of this policy was Abe’s willingness to settle for the return of just two of the four disputed islands. This was a historic concession because previous Japanese administration had always emphasized all four islands. Additionally, the two small islands targeted by Abe – Shikotan and Habomai (which is actually a group of islets) – account for only 7 percent of the disputed landmass.
To encourage Russia to accept this compromise, Abe’s “new approach” featured three further elements. First, Abe strived to develop relations of personal trust with Russian president Vladimir Putin. This entailed 27 meetings, as well as an invitation for Putin to visit Abe’s hometown in Yamaguchi prefecture in December 2016. Abe even tried to give Putin a puppy but was rebuffed.
A second sweetener was economic cooperation. Abe proposed an 8-point economic cooperation plan with Russia and created a new position within the cabinet to oversee its implementation. The Japanese leader also faithfully attended Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok each year between 2016 and 2019.
Third, Abe made sure to avoid criticism of Russia. This was evident in 2014 when, after Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Japan was extremely slow to react and then introduced only token sanctions. Similarly, in March 2018, after Russian intelligence officers conducted a botched assassination attempt on British soil using a nerve agent, Japan was the only G7 member not to expel any Russian officials. Indeed, when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tokyo shortly after the attack, the Japanese government confronted him, not with criticism, but with a birthday cake.
Reluctance to accept failure
During a summit with Putin in Singapore in November 2018, Abe felt he finally had a breakthrough. It was here, in what Abe described as his most memorable meeting with Putin, that the sides agreed to accelerate peace treaty talks based on the Soviet-Japan 1956 Joint Declaration. This was an acknowledgement of Abe’s willingness to compromise since that document mentions only two of the disputed islands.
Yet, after Singapore, instead of progress towards a deal, Russia’s stance considerably hardened. This culminated in the Putin regime’s inclusion of a clause within its amended constitution of July 2020 that explicitly bans territorial concessions.
The change to the Russian constitution was a clear sign that Japan’s “new approach” had failed, yet, even after Abe left office in September 2020, his successors – Suga Yoshihide (2020 to 2021) and Kishida Fumio (2021 to present) – maintained the pretence that the policy was still in operation due to the influence that Abe, who is now head of the Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction, continues to wield within the party. For this reason, both Suga and Kishida were hesitant to openly break with Abe’s Russia policy, though they devoted less energy to it.
For instance, Prime Minister Kishida met Abe for dinner at Tokyo’s Palace Hotel on January 11, 2022 to listen to his advice on Japan’s Russia policy. This was followed by a meeting at the prime minister’s office on February 9 at which Russia-Japan relations and the Ukraine crisis were again top of the agenda. Both Suga and Kishida even continued Abe’s practice of inviting Suzuki Muneo – who is known as the Diet’s most pro-Russian member – to the prime minister’s office for monthly consultations about Russia policy. Suzuki is a controversial figure since he was sentenced to a two-year prison sentence in 2004 for bribery, perjury, and violating Japan’s Political Funds Control Law. In 2015, he also argued that Japan should drop sanctions and recognize Russian jurisdiction over Crimea in return for progress on the Northern Territories issue.
The invasion changes everything
Even as Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s borders, Japan’s government persisted with this failing policy. Indeed, in an extraordinary misjudgment, Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa conducted trade talks on February 15 with Russian Minister of Economic Development Maksim Reshetnikov. However, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24 has made the “new approach” completely untenable.
To begin with, an emphasis on deepening economic cooperation with Russia is now impossible, not least because on February 25, Japan announced three categories of sanctions: 1) visa bans and asset freezes on “designated individuals related to Russia”; 2) asset freezes on three Russian banks (VEB.RF, Promsvyazbank, Bank Rossiya); 3) restrictions on the export to Russia of dual-use goods such as semiconductors. The day before, Japan banned the issuance of Russian sovereign debt within Japan. After some delay, Japan added that it would also contribute to efforts to exclude selected Russian banks from the SWIFT financial messaging system. These are considerably less restrictive than measures introduced by other G7 members, yet they are still a sign that ties with Russia will not return to business-as-usual.
Furthermore, both Putin and Lavrov are now international pariahs, who are personally sanctioned by the United States, European Union, Canada, and United Kingdom. On 27 February, the Japanese announced that it too would subject Putin to sanctions. It is thus unthinkable that the Japanese prime minister can resume courting them in the way Abe’s government did. In fairness, Abe himself seems to recognize that engagement with Russia cannot continue as before since, on February 25, he publicly described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a serious challenge to the international order that must not go unchallenged.
Individuals such as Abe Shinzo and Suzuki Muneo long argued that Putin, as a strong, nationalist leader, had the authority to drive through a territorial deal against Russian popular opposition, and that his leadership thus represented an opportunity for Japan. In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this argument now looks risible. Obviously, Putin, who has just ordered an unprovoked occupation of a sovereign country, is not going to agree to transfer territory to a U.S. ally.
The reality is that, under Putin’s regime, there is zero prospect of Japan achieving a favorable territorial settlement. This is a crushing disappointment for Japanese former residents of these islands whose average age is now over 86. Yet, from a foreign policy perspective, there is a silver lining.
For years, Japanese governments have been reluctant to stand up to Russia for fear that it could hamper the progress of territorial negotiations. This has repeatedly been used by Moscow as a source of leverage. Now, however, with a territorial agreement so patently not on the cards, Japan is free to reassess its policy and join Western partners in taking a firmer stance in opposing Putin’s international aggression. Declining to do so would be to heap failure upon failure.
James D.J. Brown is an associate professor of Political Science at Temple University, Japan Campus. He holds an undergraduate degree from the University of York, and postgraduate degrees from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. His main area of research is Japan’s foreign policy and especially Japan-Russia relations. Dr Brown’s work has been published in several academic journals, including International Affairs, Asia Policy, International Politics, Post-Soviet Affairs, Europe-Asia Studies, Problems of Post-Communism, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, and Politics. His books include Japan, Russia and their Territorial Dispute: The Northern Delusion (Routledge 2017), Japan’s Foreign Relations in Asia, edited with Jeff Kingston (Routledge 2018), and The Abe Legacy, edited with Guibourg Delamotte and Robert Dujarric (Lexington 2021). He also regularly writes op-eds, including for The Nikkei Asian Review, The Japan Times, and The Diplomat.