A Ukrainian woman bowing to Japanese officials after arriving at Haneda airport, Tokyo, April 2022
A Ukrainian woman bowing to Japanese officials after arriving at Haneda airport, Tokyo, April 2022
Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

At 6 p.m. on March 23, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared before the Japanese parliament via video link from Kyiv, broadcasters across Japan interrupted their evening programming to carry Zelensky’s address live. Millions of ordinary Japanese citizens watched in real time as Zelensky praised Japan’s courage as the first Asian nation to stand up for Ukrainian democracy, expressed grave concerns about the security of nuclear power plants and the potential use of nuclear weapons—subjects that have particular resonance in Japan—and received a standing ovation from the hundreds of senior Japanese officials and lawmakers who had crowded a meeting room in the lower house of the Japanese Diet for the historic virtual meeting with Zelensky.

As recently as mid-February, Ukraine was a country that even relatively well-educated Japanese might have struggled to place on a map. But after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine in February, Japanese views on the country evolved quickly. Within days, the usual, slightly disconnected expressions of sympathy or anger evoked by news of distant suffering or injustice had given way to widespread alarm that, in the words of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had undermined “the very foundation of the international order,” and that Japan’s own safety and sovereignty could be at risk.

In Japan, Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has intensified debate about Tokyo’s own self-defense capabilities and has triggered what may well be, as Kishida suggested on his return from emergency NATO talks in Brussels, the greatest foreign-policy challenge Japan has faced since the end of World War II. Japanese leaders’ decisive actions and bold statements in support of Ukraine have surprised many foreign observers. But what they may not understand is that Tokyo’s new approach has evolved alongside profound changes in Japanese society’s orientation toward the outside world and fundamental shifts in Japanese public opinion that could affect Japan’s foreign policy for years to come.

CONDEMNING RUSSIA'S ACTIONS

Japan’s quick and forceful criticism of Russia would have been slightly harder to imagine just a few years ago. After former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was sworn in for his second term in December 2012, Japanese leaders made significant investments in Russia’s economy and forged strong ties with Russian leaders. By the time Abe left office in 2020, he had met with Putin on 27 occasions, including once at an intimate and luxurious onsen, or natural hot springs spa, in Abe’s ancestral hometown of Nagato—a meeting that became known as “the onsen summit.”

Under Abe, Japan created a new cabinet-level position devoted to pursuing economic ties with Russia, and cooperation between the two countries has since led to more than 200 Japanese private-sector projects in Russia, including the ambitious Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 oil and gas developments. Although Japan joined other G-7 countries in criticizing Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea, its criticism was far more muted than that of others. Less than three weeks after Russia’s attempted assassination of former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018, while other G-7 members were censuring Moscow and expelling its diplomats from their countries, the Abe government welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Tokyo with a birthday cake shaped like a soccer ball.

Tokyo’s new approach has evolved alongside deep changes in Japanese society’s thinking about the outside world.

The Abe government hoped its silence on Russian transgressions would aid its negotiations with Moscow over a long-awaited peace treaty between Japan and Russia that would lead to the four southernmost Kuril Islands being returned to Japan. The four islands, located north of Hokkaido, are known in Japan as “the northern territories” and have been under Russian control since their annexation by the Soviet Union in the final days of World War II. Japan’s hopes that Russia might return the islands were effectively crushed in July 2020, when Russia amended its constitution to ban all territorial concessions. In hindsight, Japanese leaders’ long courtship of Putin and efforts to bring about a historic peace deal began to appear at least misguided—or at worst, humiliatingly naive.

The horrifying images that began emerging from Ukraine in February gave Kishida an opportunity to decisively pivot away from his predecessors’ policies toward Russia. The Kishida government quickly joined other G-7 countries in sanctioning Russia and freezing the assets of top Russian officials and oligarchs with close Kremlin ties. Japan went on to expel eight Russian diplomats and supported additional measures designed to isolate Russia from the international financial system and the global economy, such as excluding Russian banks from the SWIFT system.

Meanwhile, Japan’s direct assistance to Ukraine has exceeded expectations. In addition to $100 million in emergency humanitarian assistance and an additional $100 million in loans, the Japanese government has supplied Ukrainian forces with bulletproof vests, helmets, winter battle dress uniforms, tents, cameras, hygiene products, emergency rations, generators, binoculars, flashlights, and medical equipment. Although these provisions may seem modest when compared with the expensive weaponry pouring into Ukraine from other countries, the decision to supply Ukrainian fighters at all was a watershed moment for Japan’s defense policy establishment, given its self-imposed restrictions on exporting military equipment abroad.

The Japanese government’s announcement that it would accept evacuees from Ukraine came as another major surprise. For decades, Japan has been infamous for its reluctance to accept refugees; since 1982, fewer than one percent of the people who have applied to the Japanese government for refugee status have been allowed to stay. Given this history, the speed with which the Kishida cabinet has reversed long-standing policy has stunned many Japanese and foreign observers. By March 24, when U.S. President Joe Biden bowed to international pressure and announced that the United States would accept refugees from Ukraine, Tokyo had already admitted 188 Ukrainian refugees, issued visas to 300 more, and launched a government-wide task force to coordinate refugee policy. On April 5, when Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi returned from an official visit to Poland, he brought 20 Ukrainian refugees back to Japan with him on a government plane.

SEEKING A CONSTRUCTIVE ROLE

Although Kishida’s recent actions sanctioning Russia represent major reversals of Abe’s policies, some of the measures the current Japanese government has taken in support of Ukraine have actually built on steps taken by the Abe administration. For example, Abe’s efforts to play a constructive role in the G-7 and to constrain then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to damage it, helped raise Japan’s standing within the group. In the current crisis, Kishida has leveraged that newfound status to bring more Asian countries into the coalition against Putin. Before his trip to Brussels, Kishida traveled to India and Cambodia to enlist their commitment to condemning “any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force,” as he put it. His predecessor’s efforts to reinvigorate the Quad—a regional security grouping composed of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—and to promote a rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific helped to lay the groundwork for Japanese leadership during the current crisis.

Abe’s decision to establish a National Security Secretariat and to strengthen cross-ministerial coordination mechanisms has also served the Kishida government well during the Ukraine crisis, enabling it to respond to fast-moving events with agility and speed. This seems to have finally allowed the Japanese government to move past the so-called Gulf War trauma it suffered in 1990-91, when its hesitation over how best to support the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War led to criticism that it had done too little, too late.

Even more consequential changes are taking place beneath the surface, within Japanese society itself. The current crisis has been a powerful reminder for the Japanese public that peace should not be taken for granted, that a country’s security requires action from its people, and that democracy and freedom are worth fighting for. These realizations may soon lead to changes in Japan’s foreign policy trajectory and in the role Japan plays in its alliance with the United States.

Since the war in Ukraine began, the fate of its people has been increasingly present in Japanese public discourse. Throughout Japan, castles, temples, government buildings, and other major landmarks are lit up at night in the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag. Young Japanese have gathered around Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing for demonstrations in support of Ukraine, and the city of Kyoto celebrated the 50th anniversary of its sister-city relationship with Kyiv by launching a program to receive and support Ukrainian evacuees.

On February 27, Hiroshi Mikitani, the chief executive officer of Rakuten, a Japanese e-commerce giant, launched a donation drive with the goal of raising one billion yen ($7.9 million) to aid Ukraine—and ended up raising nine times that sum in the first ten days. Municipalities across Japan are providing consultation services for prospective Ukrainian refugees, helping them find housing, medical services, and childcare. The Nippon Foundation has launched an initiative that provides refugees with free flights to Japan, then matches them with companies and local governments that have offered the refugees housing and financial assistance. Such efforts enjoy overwhelming public support: a recent survey found that 90 percent of the Japanese public supports accepting Ukrainian refugees.

Commentators seeking to explain Japan’s outpouring of support for Ukraine often point to the particulars of Ukraine’s present suffering, which are peculiarly reminiscent of many of Japan’s past traumas. Zelensky did not name Fukushima, Nagasaki, or Hiroshima in his address to Japan’s parliament, but the Japanese public instantly understood his concerns about nuclear dangers. Many Japanese have experienced forced dislocation due to natural disasters, such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and empathize with Ukrainians longing to return home.

For many ordinary Japanese, the war in Ukraine has led to the realization that they cannot take their own security for granted. Many now believe they could soon see a “unilateral change to the status quo by force,” to borrow Kishida’s phrase, in Japan’s immediate neighborhood. A public opinion survey conducted in late February found that 77 percent of Japanese respondents were concerned that Russian aggression in Ukraine could have a “spillover effect” on China’s thinking about whether to take military action against Taiwan.

The valor of the Ukrainian forces has spurred a rare philosophical debate within Japan about what countries should fight for.

Finally, the valor of the Ukrainian forces has spurred a rare philosophical debate within Japan about what countries should fight for. After some Japanese pundits argued early on that Ukrainian forces should simply give up, since fighting the Russians would lead to more loss of life, they received heated pushback from politicians, other experts, and the Japanese public.

The war in Ukraine may turn out to be a wake-up call for the Japanese public. Japan, unlike Ukraine, is a treaty ally of the United States, but not everyone finds that completely reassuring. Referring to Biden’s 2021 argument that “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” some Japanese commentators argue that Japan must think hard about what that line of reasoning means for Japan.

The broader public debate over Japan’s defense policy that the war in Ukraine sparked is still in its infancy, and it is impossible to predict what kind of policy outcomes or new agreements it might eventually produce. What is certain, however, is that within a few short weeks, the war has significantly sharpened the country’s focus on defense policy, just as the Japanese government prepares for the formal review of its National Security Strategy, which it is scheduled to conduct this year. Though Japan’s security strategy will remain focused on China and North Korea, Japanese policymakers are keenly aware of the fact that the war in Ukraine may lead the United States to shift attention and resources away from the Indo-Pacific.

A DISTANT WAR WITH A DEEPER MEANING

For Japanese society, the war in Ukraine also has a deeper meaning, and its impact has resonated far beyond the defense policy establishment. Since World War II, Japan has been, in the words of the preamble to the 1946 Japanese constitution, “determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world.” That trust has now been broken by Russia, endangering not just Ukraine, but the entire postwar international order. If Japan is to uphold the national goal described in the subsequent sentence of its constitution’s preamble—“to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth”—it must overcome any remaining reticence with regard to its involvement in matters of international security and prepare to take bold and concrete action.

Zelensky’s speech to Japan’s parliament, which displayed an astute understanding of Japanese society’s attachment to pacifism, offered Japan a path forward. Zelensky did not call for Japan to send arms, as he has when speaking to lawmakers in many other countries. Instead, he asked Tokyo to continue pressuring Russia through sanctions. Describing his admiration for Japan’s values and history of development, defending peace, and protecting the environment, Zelensky called on Japan to play a leading role in rebuilding Ukraine and reforming international institutions.

Japan’s own experiences of rebuilding after being destroyed by war and natural disasters should not only produce greater empathy among the Japanese toward Ukrainians, but spur action on behalf of the Ukrainian people and others around the world who are seeking refuge from tyranny and oppression. Although the few hundred Ukrainian evacuees who have arrived in Japan to date are a tiny proportion of those seeking refuge, their presence in Japan is likely to be an important catalyst for policy change within the country.

It is difficult to know whether the current outpouring of empathy toward Ukraine will continue after media coverage of the war recedes and the economic cost of sanctions are felt in people’s lives. According to an Asahi poll that concluded on March 20, 67 percent of the Japanese public supports imposing economic sanctions on Russia even if there are negative repercussions for Japan’s economy. At first blush, this might appear to be an easy choice: Japan depends far more on trade with China and the United States than it does on trade with Russia; the disappearance of Russian-sourced crab from Japanese menus, for example, seems a tolerable sacrifice to many. On the other hand, abandoning Japan’s stake in the Sakhalin-2 liquified natural gas project, which is based in Russia and viewed as critical to Japan’s long-term energy security, will be a far tougher choice for resource-poor Japan to make.

Kishida’s leadership will be crucial, and since the crisis began, he has sought to reassure Japan’s citizens that he is prepared to rise to the challenge. In his recent public statements, Kishida has repeatedly emphasized the historical significance of this moment for the people of Japan. For example, after Russian forces committed atrocities in Bucha, he declared that “we are at a critical juncture to stop the unlawful invasion and to defend a peaceful order.” The moment may prove to be a good match for Kishida’s foreign policy platform, which he has described in speeches as “realism diplomacy for a new era,” and which emphasizes protecting universal values, addressing global challenges, and defending peace and security. And as Japan is scheduled to host the G-7 summit in 2023, Kishida’s hometown, Hiroshima, may turn out to be the ideal venue. If, as many hope, Ukraine is well into its own reconstruction phase by then, a G-7 summit in Hiroshima would symbolize a new beginning after war and destruction and the new confidence that Zelensky described in his speech to the Diet, that “tomorrow will come and will be stable and peaceful. For us, for future generations.”

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  • TAKAKO HIKOTANI is a Professor at Gakushuin University International Centre and Senior Fellow with the Asia Society Policy Institute in Tokyo. From 2016 to 2021, she was Gerald L. Curtis Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy at Columbia University, where she continues to serve as an Adjunct Senior Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.
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