In a shift from just a month ago, the Japanese public favors tough sanctions on Russia in concert with the US and Europe.
While the world’s focus has been on the dramatic shifts in European policy over the past week, the crisis in Ukraine is global in scope. In addition to the United States and the European Union, Japan has joined other G7 nations in imposing dramatic sanctions against Russia. These include an asset freeze on targeted individuals in the Russian government and three major Russian banks, the isolation of Russia from the SWIFT financial messaging system, and a prohibition on transactions of Russian sovereign debt. Unlike in the past, such actions are popular with the Japanese public, in part because they fear the ripple effects this invasion could have closer to home.
According to a Nikkei/Tokyo TV survey conducted February 25-27, six in 10 Japanese (61%) say Japan should toughen sanctions on Russia in step with United States and European partners, compared to 30 percent who say Japan should pursue its own diplomatic course. This is double the level of support seen among the Japanese public in March 2014, following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. At that time only three in 10 Japanese (31%) supported sanctions in step with Western partners, while a majority (54%) favored pursing an independent policy. It is also a notable shift from this January, when the public was split between aligning with US sanctions (43%) and pursuing an independent policy towards Russia (45%).
What explains the difference from 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea? For one, the scale of the conflict is far larger, and a far greater shock to global sentiment, politics, and economics. Moreover, the stiff resistance by the Ukrainian people to an invasion by a larger, more powerful neighbor naturally casts them in a favorable light as an underdog. And throughout, with the United States and Europe playing a key role, Ukraine has had the upper hand in the information war. All of these are likely to affect outside perceptions of the conflict.
But the Japanese public is also focused on this crisis because they fear the effects may hit very close to home. In the Nikkei poll, three-quarters of Japanese (77%) say they are concerned that if the international community cannot halt Russia’s effort to change national borders by force, it will have consequences for how China handles its relationship with Taiwan. Certainly, the Japanese public is not alone in seeing a Ukraine-Taiwan connection, despite the efforts of Taiwanese officials and US policy experts to differentiate the two scenarios.
In addition to these economic measures, Japan is also pitching in to support Ukraine and its people. Tokyo has so far pledged a total of $200 million to Ukraine in support, half in loans and half in emergency humanitarian assistance. And the Japanese public backs that kind of support as well: in Nikkei polling, seven in 10 (70%) favor Japan providing aid to displaced persons and other humanitarian assistance.
Japan’s actions on Ukraine thus far are certainly greater than their reactions to past crises in Eastern Europe. What we have not yet seen from Japan is anything equivalent to Germany’s ‘Zeitenwende’, announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. In addition to providing arms to Ukraine, Germany will raise its defense spending to more than two percent of GDP and allocate 100 billion euros in a special fund for the Bundeswehr—a dramatic shift in German foreign policy. The closest Japanese equivalent to such a shift thus far has been former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo raising the notion of a US-Japan nuclear sharing arrangement, a longstanding feature of NATO’s nuclear deterrence. This proposal was swiftly shot down by current Prime Minister Kishida as a clear violation of Japan’s three non-nuclear principles. But with so many other longstanding policies falling by the wayside in the wake of this new crisis, calls for Japan to follow Germany’s example will continue.