by Philip Patrick
Wednesday, 9
March 2022
Dispatch
10:11

First Germany, now Japan leaves pacifism behind

The Ukraine crisis has shattered the country's pacifist consensus
by Philip Patrick
Credit: Getty

Tokyo, Japan

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged his country’s full support to the Ukrainian cause: refugees will be accepted, military supplies will be dispatched and financial sanctions against Russia and Belarus will be imposed. In addition, Japan has committed $200 million of relief aid for Ukraine and diverted 210,000 tones of liquified natural gas to Europe. In other words, Japan is fully on board with the West’s efforts.

This appears to mark a striking departure from Japan’s traditionally reserved and cautious approach to international crises. As recently as 2014 Japan only very reluctantly joined the West in implementing sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. That reluctance has now evaporated.

There are numerous factors behind this shift, notably the spectre of a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which looms large in the consciousness of Japanese policymakers. The need to avoid the impression of weakness is paramount. Hints of this strategy were evident in the joint communique that resulted from the Biden-Suga (Kishida’s predecessor) summit last year where Japan and the US reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring peace and stability across the Taiwan strait. Kishida’s much stronger words on Ukraine may be intended for Xi Jinping’s ears as much as Vladimir Putin’s.

In a broader sense Japan is also looking to reposition itself on the global stage and update its status. Japan’s response is believed to be calibrated with that of its wartime ally Germany, both of which are bound by post-war obligations. Powerful forces have been pushing for a revision of its terms and a more pro-active foreign policy for decades now. Often misunderstood as the cause solely of Japan’s far-Right, last year around 48% of the population backed constitutional revision in a poll (as opposed to 31% who were against). Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would not be surprising if a clear majority was now in favour.

Kishida is generally seen as on the Left of the ruling LDP, but he was unequivocal in a recent press conference that the country “needs to implement a fundamental upgrade of its defence capabilities”. It would have been a highly controversial comment in the recent past, but no more.

Shame is part of the equation too (as always in Japan). The Ukraine crisis brings to mind the 1991 Gulf War, remembered painfully as a time when Japanese self-defence force troops were caught on camera sculpting ice figures at a snow festival while its allies were either waging war in the desert or, at least, sending material aid (Japan made a financial contribution). The loss of face was felt keenly and did much to boost the cause of the constitutional revisionists.

Kishida will have taken note of the feelings of the public too. Tokyoites have taken to the streets to show support for Ukraine with demonstrations outside the Russian embassy and a 2000-strong (huge for Japan) gathering in central Shibuya.

The spectre of a nuclear dimension to the conflict has also clearly been a factor. Any mention of nuclear weapons in Japan sparks a visceral reaction. This may have focused the prime minister’s mind too: Kishida’s family comes from Hiroshima and some of his relatives died in the atomic bombing of 1945.

Lastly, the animus of the protestors may also be partly fuelled by embarrassment at not having taken Putin seriously in the past. The Russian leader has long enjoyed a strange idol-like popularity in Japan. Calendars of the Russian President are bestsellers on Japanese Amazon, and he is admired for his devotion to the Japanese judoka Kano Jigoro and his philosophy of ‘seiryoku-Zenyo’ (maximum efficiency). Putin was awarded the sixth-dan (higher than a black belt) by the Japanese judo association in 2000 and won plaudits in Japan by saying he felt “at home” when visiting the Kudokan in Tokyo (the sport’s world headquarters) and praising judo for “spreading Japanese culture and the Japanese spirit across the entire globe”.

For the Japanese it appears that their illusions of the Russian leader have been shattered, as have their illusions about maintaining a quasi-neutral, pacifist stance in an increasingly dangerous world. While it remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Kishida’s pledges will have much effect on the conflict in Ukraine — and no actual figures for refugees to be accepted have been disclosed — the rhetoric alone marks a clear departure from precedent.

And there will surely be no going back.

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Bob Rowlands
Bob Rowlands
6 months ago

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken up the global pack which the western alliance cannot afford to lose. At the same time the more open ‘democracies’ have been far too naive in allowing intellectual property theft. Oxford and Cambridge have been particularly unsophisticated and risible but not exclusively them; it’s happened across the globe under the umbrella of “academic collaboration” but universities have simply sold out to corrupt regimes. Politicians must take responsibility for this and legislate accordingly. EG: We can’t have a ‘researcher’ nipping in for 5 years and pinching the latest quantum physics research and disappearing back to their homeland. Cliché I know however if you want peace prepare for war – time to wake up and it seems Japan has done so!

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
6 months ago

Japan is simply preparing for the eventual takeover of Taiwan by China. It will need the backing of the West when that happens.

Warren T
Warren T
6 months ago

Perhaps the real reason for the Japanese, and many other young people around the globe, to be outside protesting anything these days is to create a photo opp to post on social media. That’s all.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 months ago

Its been well overdue for the Japanese and the Germans to throw off their mantle of guilt over WW2 and get involved in serious geopolitics. But it’s now rather handy that they can so easily pass the mantle on to the new paragon of evil, Putin.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
6 months ago

Japan, yes. Germany, no. Japan faces China, a very serious opponent, and Japan never went through the German guilt phase from the 1960s onwards. Germany is now militantly pacifist. This simple point is about to become abundantly clear.