The Government has distinguished between the Putin regime and its people
Ever since the invasion of Ukraine, there has effectively been a policy of ‘nyet zero’ tolerance in the UK: that the invasion is an act of unprecedented evil which justifies any sanction against the Russia and Belorussian nations. Anyone daring to object, however mildly, is a ‘Putin apologist’ who cares not about the horrors being inflicted on the people of Ukraine.
Meanwhile in Japan, the atmosphere is very different — here there is a conscious emphasis by the authorities on avoiding Russophobia. Just a fortnight ago, in an extraordinary intervention, Japan’s Foreign Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi reprimanded the entire nation over human rights abuses against Russian nationals living in Japan:
What made this statement so striking is that the incidents that provoked Hayashi’s ire were few in number and relatively mild. In late February an inn (one inn) in Shiga prefecture said it would stop accepting Russian guests; Ebisu station (one station out of 881 in Tokyo) removed Russian signage from its platforms; and ‘Red Square’ a Russian shop in Tokyo, whose merchandise had included such novelties as Vladimir Putin T-shirts and chocolates (very dark, very bitter) had its signboard knocked over and broken.
Hayashi’s statement felt like a teacher who notices a few members of a generally well-behaved class starting to get silly and puts his foot down before things get out of hand. And it appears to be working: Ebisu station put back the Russian signage and issued an apology, and Red Square was deluged with messages of goodwill and offers to pay for the damage. The owners declined the offers, but then couldn’t get the firm they employed to fix the sign to accept payment.
Cynics might suggest that Hayashi’s statement was aimed at Moscow, with a view to the long-term relationship with Russia, and energy, sovereignty, and security concerns. But this doesn’t really square with the actions of Fumio Kishida’s government. To date, Japan has frozen the assets of Putin subordinates, businesses, and banks, expelled Russian diplomats, announced $300 million in humanitarian aid and, in a rare move, begun to take in evacuees.
Military equipment (bullet proof vests and helmets) has been sent to the war zone, no small matter given the strictures of Japan’s pacifist constitution. And just in case anyone was in any doubt where the government’s sympathies lay, the municipal offices in Shinjuku were lit up in the blue and yellow of Ukraine.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, at least, seemed satisfied with all that: he addressed the Japanese parliament and praised Japan for being the first Asian country to apply significant pressure on Putin’s regime.
And that specific wording marks the difference with the UK. All of Japan’s actions to date have been targeted specifically at the Putin regime, not the Russian nation as a whole. There has been no talk of sporting or cultural boycotts or of an en masse eviction of Japan’s 9000 strong Russian ex-pat community.
Sumo wrestling has had several Russian competitors in the recent past, but no one is calling for a future ban. Cultural events with Russian/Ukrainian associations are going ahead as planned: the Tokyo Philharmonic will perform excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake next month with the Russian Mikhail Pletnev guest conducting — no political declaration required; and Ukrainian born Prokofiev’s Cinderella will be performed this week without any politicisation.
Japan is displaying a grown up, sensible, humane approach to a highly emotive and difficult issue. Perhaps the UK and US could learn from their example.