Like many ‘Arctic-adjacent’ countries, Japan is interested in the region for its energy and its maritime trade potential. Their activity in the High North is emblematic of near-Arctic countries generally, with some caveats.
Natural Gas and the National Interest
Since the 2011 Fukushima Crisis, Japan has been searching for alternatives to nuclear power. Alterations to energy policy saw nuclear power decline from making up a third of the country’s total energy production to just two percent. Liquified natural gas (LNG) imports have filled the void, and Japan’s new appetite for natural gas has drawn their attention to Russia and Scandinavia.
Key Japanese corporations are cooperating with Russia in an LNG development project. Japanese Prime Minister Abe praised the deal, saying it “facilitates Russia’s efforts to develop the Arctic and ensures stable energy supply to our country”. As with other near-Arctic countries like Britain and South Korea, deference is displayed to Arctic partners so as to deflect sovereignty concerns. The deal includes substantial cooperation between China and Japan, a further calcification of the People’s Republic’s regional power.
Norway’s first LNG tanker arrived in Japan in 2012, inaugurating their present cooperation in development of the Northeast Passage. Since Japan wants to diversify its energy imports as much as possible, importing Arctic gas from several countries is a must.
In 2013, Japan unveiled its Basic Ocean Policy Plan and was made a permanent observer on the Arctic Council. As with most Arctic and near-Arctic states, the country’s High North policy was woefully out of date. In order to correct this, Japan appointed an Arctic Affairs Ambassador the same year, and in 2015 released an official Arctic policy statement. Japan is focused on improving relations with Russia and increasing cooperation along the Northeastern Passage.
Climate Change Credibility
Japan has operated an Arctic climate research center since 1990. While valuable in itself, climate concerns are often used to legitimize near-Arctic powers’ presence in the High North.
Japan officially resumed Arctic whaling in 2019, a traditional but highly contested practice. However, Norway and Iceland are also whaling advocates, and the three have proved highly resilient to international intervention against them.
Japan’s Arctic involvement is mild and forthright, preeminently focused on LNG access. The island nation will continue economic integration with Russia and Scandinavia, with a shakier future ahead for its Chinese and Korean circumpolar partnerships. As with other near-Arctic states, Japanese investment and development may be of value so long as Arctic regional sovereignty is respected.