13.04.2024 Author: Nazar Kurbanov

Russia in Japanese foreign policy at present. Humanitarian and political aspects

Russia in Japanese foreign policy at present. Humanitarian and political aspects

From the very beginning of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, Japan has taken one of the toughest positions towards our country, repeatedly condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, imposing several sets of sanctions, regularly updating them and adding new positions. For example, on 1 March 2024, Japan once again tightened sanctions against our country, adding 12 more individuals and 36 organisations to the “black list”, including Kalashnikov, Almaz-Antey, Uralvagonzavod, etc. (the total number of sanctioned persons is about 1,000 individuals and more than 700 organisations). Virtually the entire Russian military and political leadership was sanctioned, as well as key public figures (e.g. Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Rossiya Segodnya and RT media groups). Another painful aspect of bilateral relations was the introduction and repeated tightening of the ban on exports from Japan to Russia of a whole range of goods and technologies, the list of which exceeded 800 items.

Moreover, since February 2022, the Japanese media have begun to refer to all cities and villages controlled by the Kiev regime (as well as the territories of the DPR, LPR, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions) in the Ukrainian way: for example, Kiev used to be translated into Japanese as キエフ, but now it is written as キーウ, which remotely resembles the Ukrainian name of this city. All this might lead one to believe that Japan is using very aggressive and even inappropriate rhetoric against our country. However, there are a number of circumstances that allow us to say that Japan continues to act primarily on the basis of its national interests. We can currently distinguish several directions of Japanese foreign policy towards Russia:

  • Humanitarian co-operation;
  • Economic co-operation;
  • Individual political contacts.

In this article we will focus only on humanitarian and political interaction between countries, as the economic sphere is the subject of a separate study.

In our view, bilateral humanitarian cooperation can be divided into a domestic aspect, which is mainly for the benefit of the Japanese economy and society, and a foreign policy aspect. As far as domestic policy is concerned, the Japanese side, unlike the EU countries, has not completely broken off contacts with Russia. The Igor Moiseyev Ballet visited Japan in October 2022, and its concerts caused a sensation every time. Educational contacts have not been interrupted: for example, in 2022-2024 several dozens of MGIMO students have completed or are currently undergoing training (“internships”) within the framework of exchange programmes at such Japanese universities as Shizuoka, Aoyama Gakuin, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS), Sophia University and International Christian University (ICU). Interestingly, the author of these lines has also completed an internship at Aoyama Gakuin University in the autumn semester of the 2022-2023 academic year. Moreover, contacts in the tourism sector have not only not been interrupted, but are actively recovering from the coronavirus pandemic: according to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), 42,000 Russians will visit Japan in 2023, four times more than last year, but still behind the 2019 figure of 120,000. It is interesting to note that the tourists who visited Japan in 2023 (25.07 million people) brought the national economy a total of 5.29 trillion yen ($34.8 billion at the current exchange rate), so we can calculate the approximate amount that the Japanese economy received from Russian tourists – 8.83 billion yen (about $60 million). Thus, unlike the EU, Japan has maintained a very active humanitarian interaction with our country, which allows Japan not only to “keep the door open” in its relations with Russia, but also to receive a certain (albeit insignificant) income for the national economy.

It is also necessary to mention the foreign policy aspect of Japan’s humanitarian cooperation with Russia. Firstly, a very sophisticated system of community organising and grassroots democracy programmes was developed in the United States from the 1940s to the 1970s, which consists of organising ordinary people into initiative groups or movements to exert targeted pressure on state authorities using various tricks, political blackmail and other methods. Community organising techniques have been so successful that they have been used by the Democratic Party in US presidential elections (e.g. the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012), because they make it possible to use the mechanisms of real democracy to improve people’s lives and take at least some of the power away from big American capital. At the same time, these methods have been copied by other Western countries (including Japan) because they can be used to put pressure on other states under the pretext of supporting civil society against this or that “undemocratic” regime. In the case of Russia, grassroots and community organising programmes have been successfully implemented by various European Union non-profit and non-governmental organisations. However, in 2022, the EU has in fact voluntarily deprived itself of this most powerful tool – by rudely and openly declaring the goal of overthrowing the current government in Russia, the EU has contributed to the marginalisation in Russia of any initiatives not only directly related to the EU, but also to concepts such as “democracy”, “freedom of speech”, “human rights” and so on.

Second, the strengthening of relations between Russia, China and the DPRK poses a serious threat to Japan’s security, as these countries geographically “overhang” the entire northern and western part of Japan. With the marginalisation of Western soft power, China and North Korea are becoming more popular and attractive in Russia: for example, according to RPORC, 53% of Russians regard China as a friendly state or as a partner and ally.

In our opinion, due to the serious threat of Russia’s rapprochement with China and the DPRK at the expense of the EU’s miscalculations in Russia’s direction, Japan is trying to significantly strengthen its position in the structure of the collective West and in the world as a whole, and also hopes to separate Russia from China and North Korea through its “soft power”. In our country, Japan is not and does not seek to be associated with the excessive politicisation of the European Union (and the US), and at the same time it maintains and develops many humanitarian contacts with our country, which gives it unique access to Russian society. Thus, in 2024, due to the general decline of the world community’s interest in the Ukrainian issue, Japan, unlike the European Union, intensified its cooperation with Russia in the humanitarian sphere. On 15 March, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said at a press conference in Tokyo that Japan would support cultural and humanitarian exchanges with Russia. In February this year, Japanese Ambassador to Russia Akira Muto expressed the same idea: “I believe that cultural and humanitarian exchanges, especially between young people, are important for the development of our mutual understanding in the medium and long term.

Thus, despite its demonstratively tough stance towards Russia, Japan skilfully balances its obligations to the rest of the “collective West” with negotiations with Russia, while at the same time increasing its international influence and reducing security risks for itself, largely through the humanitarian sphere.

As far as individual political contacts with Russia are concerned, here too Japan proceeds purely from its national interests, albeit with an eye on the rest of the “collective West”. Firstly, not a single foreign institution of the Russian Foreign Ministry system in Japan has been closed (unlike in other Western countries, where our embassies and consulates have been forced to close, their premises have even been expropriated and their accounts confiscated). Secondly, despite obvious pressure from its allies, Japan remains one of the few Western states to have expelled the least number of Russian diplomats – 9 people (8 in May and 1 in October) with their families. Curiously, not a single Russian diplomat was expelled from Japan between 2023 and 2024.

Third, since the 1970s, Japan has had a practice of representatives of parliamentary opposition parties visiting countries with which Japan has no official diplomatic relations or with which it is in crisis. Such parliamentary diplomacy helps to defuse the situation and suggest ways of resolving conflicts. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Socialist Party of Japan maintained fairly close contacts with the DPRK in the absence of official diplomatic relations between the two countries, controlled bilateral trade, and even acted as a kind of mediator between the DPRK and South Korea. In the case of Russia, contacts are maintained by individual members of parliament, mostly right-wing MPs, who have had close ties with our country in the past and are not afraid to take the political risks involved. In October 2023, for example, Muneo Suzuki, a member of parliament from the right-wing Japan Restoration Party, paid a five-day visit to Russia, for which he was expelled from the party and criticised at home. Nevertheless, the visit was very tightly scheduled, as Suzuki held extensive talks with Sergei Glazyev, Minister for Integration and Macroeconomics of the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC), Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Andrei Rudenko and Mikhail Galuzin (he was Russia’s ambassador to Japan) – all of which we believe gives Japan more freedom in its relations with Russia than the EU and the US, as Japan has the opportunity to learn directly about the mood of Russia’s military and political leadership and society.

Thus, in the humanitarian and political aspects, Japan is acting from its own interests, carefully balancing between the rest of the “collective West” and direct interaction with our country. By skilfully taking advantage of the EU and US miscalculations on Russia and trying to create a rift in the close interaction between Russia and the DPRK, Japan fills the vacant niches and reduces the security risks for itself, which seriously enhances its political status in the world and at the same time gives it unique access not only to the top military-political leadership of our country but also to Russian society.


Nazar KURBANOV, trainee, Centre for Spatial Analysis of International Relations, Institute for International Studies, MGIMO, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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