Japan and the Arctic: Challenges at Sea

Ainu Cultural Centre, Sapporo [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Among the growing number of non-Arctic states which have recently begun to better define and expand their circumpolar policies, Japan has not had the same international visibility as compared with China and Western Europe. Tokyo had sought to address that omission during the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík in October 2015 with the announcement, during the first day of the event, that the Japanese government was releasing its first governmental white paper on the country’s comprehensive Arctic policy, (an English translation can be read via the Arctic Portal).

The unexpected announcement of the paper’s release was made at the conference by Japan’s then-Arctic Ambassador, Ms Kazuko Shiraishi, and was followed by a breakout panel discussion on Japan’s wider Arctic initiatives by Ambassador Shiraishi and other regional specialists. Earlier in the day, the specifics of the paper had been announced in Tokyo by the Japanese Headquarters for Ocean Policy, during a meeting led by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.

The white paper was noteworthy in comparison with similar documents released by other non-Arctic states in recent years for its strong focus on promoting the rule of law in the Far North as well as maximizing the use of Arctic sea routes for shipping and the need to encourage regional security while discouraging outright militarisation. Japan’s concerns about a potential military build-up in the Arctic were further illustrated when Beijing released its own Arctic policy paper in January this year, which included plans to incorporate the Arctic Ocean into its Belt and Road trade strategies. A February 2018 editorial [in Japanese] in the Yomiuri Shimbun questioned which China had strategic plans for emerging Arctic trade routes, citing ongoing disputes in the East and South China Seas.

More traditional Arctic concerns, including environmental protection, support for regional institutions, and the rights of indigenous persons, were also outlined. Yet the document strongly signified Japan’s concerns about traditional and economic security issues in the region. The paper was released at a time when Japan had begun to deepen and modernise its overall strategic policies, including a controversial reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution which would allow for the potential deployment of Japanese forces overseas was passed into law. Ambassador Shiraishi had also recommended that Japan and the US should also cooperate more closely on Arctic research and development, and since 2016 Japan had joined with China and South Korea for annual trilateral meetings to discuss cooperation in Arctic scientific research.

Ms Shiraishi was succeeded as Arctic Ambassador by Mr Keiji Ide, who gave a presentation [video] at the most recent Arctic Circle conference in October of last year on Japan’s environmental and economic interests in the Arctic, as well as the work of the ongoing Arctic Challenge for Sustainability (ARCS) projects. Japan’s current Arctic Ambassador is Mr Eiji Yamamoto with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Downtown Sapporo [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The inclusion of a short paragraph on national security in the White Paper suggested that Tokyo had begun to perceive the Arctic not only as a political and economic area of interest but also an area of potential strategic differences, especially as the region opens up to outside development. As one chapter in the 2015 edition of the Arctic Yearbook noted, Japan’s Arctic policy has traditionally rested on three pillars, namely diplomacy, science and business interests.

Japan was one of the original fourteen High Contracting Parties of the Spitsbergen Treaty in 1920, a document which clarified the sovereignty of Svalbard while allowing for commercial use of the islands by treaty signatories. Japan’s Tokyo-based National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) has operated a research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard since 1991, and the country’s Maritime Self Defence Forces (MSDF) has maintained an icebreaker for polar research, the Shirase, out of the port of Yokosuka since 2009. Japan was successful in obtaining formal observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013, the same year that an Arctic Ambassador was named by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Like other Asian states who have begun to develop Arctic policies over the past decade, including China, Singapore and South Korea, Japan has expressed greater interest not only in the potential for Arctic resource development as the region becomes more accessible due to climate change, but also the expanded use of Arctic sea routes as shortcuts for trade.

As one article on the subject explained [paywall], the economic potential of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) has now been studied in Japan from a variety of different angles, including by governmental and research institutions, and also on the prefecture level as the government of the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido (北海道) began its own initiative in 2012 to study the economic benefits of the NSR on the local economy, including the possibility of Hokkaido developing as a hub for future Arctic shipping. The white paper called upon Japan to increase its study of the route so that it can be more extensively used in an effective and safe manner. Further Arctic research is also conducted at the University of Hokkaido, based in Sapporo, which houses the Arctic Research Centre (ARC), with a focus on sustainable development and environmental issues in the far north.

University of Hokkaido campus [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As the NSR becomes a focus of greater international attention for its shipping potential, with a recent report suggesting that overall cargo transported within the route had increased by 81% this year compared to 2017, (an estimated 9.95 million tonnes of cargo), Japan is seeking to develop its own shipping interests in the Arctic Ocean. However, Japan is also seeking to develop a more comprehensive Arctic policy which includes environmental cooperation and research, while also gauging whether the region become a centre for strategic cooperation in the coming years.

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post appeared in the now-defunct Arctic Journal in October 2015.]