Pallets loaded onto the Japanese Self-Defense Force cargo aircraft this month contained bulletproof vests, helmets, and other nonlethal military equipment – much different from the shoulder-fired missiles, drones, and other weapons many Western countries have sent to Ukrainians fighting Russia’s invasion.
Japan’s decision to ship military equipment to Ukraine still marked a major step for Tokyo, whose pacifist constitution has for decades kept the country out of foreign military conflicts.
“This kind of mission is the first case for us, but we will do our utmost to swiftly deliver [the equipment] to Ukraine,” tweeted Japan’s Defense Ministry, referring to the March 9 shipment.
Although Japanese officials say they have no plans to send weapons to Ukraine, Japan has been on the front lines of a Western-led effort to pressure Russia using diplomatic and economic means.
Japan has imposed sanctions on Russian oligarchs, frozen assets of Russian banks, and this week revoked Russia’s most favored nation trade status.
It has also sent $100 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Ukraine and smoothed the path to accept Ukrainians fleeing the fighting – a notable move in a country long reluctant to accept overseas refugees.
The moves not only underscore Japan’s broader shift toward a more assertive foreign policy, they also show Tokyo has become bolder in aligning with the West and standing up for principles that underpin the existing U.S.-led international order.
Support for Ukraine is “quite natural,” since Japan is “one of the biggest beneficiaries of global peace and stability,” said Matsumoto Koichiro, deputy Cabinet secretary for public affairs at the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office.
“We attach great importance to universal values such as democracy, rule of law, and human rights, including freedom of expression. We know from our experience that when people stop fighting for these values, we will be giving chances and spaces to authoritarian regimes,” Matsumoto told VOA.
“As the people in Ukraine are fighting for these values that shape our society, supporting them in any way we can is the only way,” he added.
The Japanese public seems to agree. According to a recent poll by Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun daily, 82% of the Japanese public supports economic sanctions against Russia. Polls have also shown strong support for accepting Ukrainian refugees.
“That doesn’t tend to be a thing that the Japanese public supports,” said Corey Wallace, who teaches global security courses at Yokohama’s Kanagawa University.
“You look at the Afghanistan and Syria situations, they were pretty reluctant to take refugees [from] there,” he said.
The public support has given Prime Minister Fumio Kishida more space to accelerate a shift away from the approach of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had tried to improve ties with Russia, Wallace said.
“[Japan-Russia relations] were never particularly good, despite Abe’s commitment. So I think it’s really just returning to the status quo here,” Wallace added.
Abe, who stepped down in 2020, continues to shape Japan’s policies. For instance, sending military aid to Ukraine was only possible because Abe in 2014 relaxed a ban on arms exports, allowing for such shipments if they “contributed to global peace.”
“This was … nonlethal, almost humanitarian equipment. But for Japan to provide even non-lethal military equipment to a country in the middle of a conflict is remarkable,” Wallace said.
Under Abe, Japan boosted military spending and reinterpreted the country’s pacifist constitution, in theory thus allowing Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War II.
Japanese conservatives argue that the country needs to be able to better defend itself, especially in response to China’s growing military prowess and willingness to coerce its neighbors.
Such moves risk further upsetting Japan’s relations with China, South Korea, and North Korea, who fear Japan may revert to its old militarism.
There are also considerable economic and strategic risks to Japan’s more assertive approach to Russia, in particular.
Japan, which imported about 9% of its natural gas and 4% of its oil from Russia in 2021, is likely to see higher energy costs. So far, the resource-poor country has not followed the U.S. lead in banning Russian oil imports.
While Japan will probably retain some essential trade with Russia, the economic relationship will be “severely downgraded,” according to Artyom Lukin, an associate professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia.
“No doubt the relationship has been very badly affected. And the damage will be long-lasting, even if this war stops tomorrow,” Lukin told VOA.
Russia will probably intensify its military exercises near Japan, including Russian naval ships that sail near the Japanese coast and Russian airplanes that fly close to Japanese airspace, Lukin added.
The situation could also further push Moscow into Beijing’s orbit, which could hinder Russia-Japan ties moving forward, warned Lukin.
“For example, if China’s relations with Japan get worse, Russia would follow suit just to express solidarity with China,” he said.
Kishida has also shelved peace treaty talks with Russia that were aimed at resolving a decadeslong territorial dispute over two islands currently controlled by Russia. Such negotiations would be inappropriate, Kishida said, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Matsumoto acknowledged such challenges but said “the risk of inaction is far greater than the risk of action.”
“I think countries around the world are given a choice – whether you are going to fight for the universal values that shape the world today, or you deny them, or you pretend that you didn’t see the events actually unfolding,” he said. “Japan chose the first option.”