Japan’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fragile global economy and the government’s own handling of the pandemic dominated a March 31 discussion between Japanese Ambassador Koji Tomita and the Washington Diplomat’s editor-at-large, Anna Gawel—in a packed event that marked the return of our Ambassador Insider Series after a two-year hiatus.
Some 150 people attended the program, which took place at the rooftop conference room of the 1331 Maryland luxury apartment building overlooking Washington’s Tidal Basin and thousands of Japanese cherry trees at the peak of flowering that were given to the city by Tokyo in 1912.
“Our gift of cherry trees 110 years ago continues to embody the friendship between our two countries,” Tomita told his audience. “We’ve had some very unfortunate periods when we were divided by conflict. But we always overcome these challenges. It’s just like the cherry trees coming back to please you every year. This continual renewal embodies the resilience of our alliance, for which I’m very grateful.”
The Ambassador Insider Series, launched in 2015 with Azerbaijan’s then-envoy to the United States, Elin Suleymanov, was a regular staple of Washington’s diplomatic scene, featuring interviews with ambassadors from dozens of countries including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Estonia, Georgia, Haiti, Iraq, Pakistan, Peru, Tunisia and the European Union. COVID-19 forced an end to all face-to-face events, and the series was put on hold following the declaration of coronavirus as a pandemic in March 2020.
Tomita was introduced by one of the program’s chief sponsors, Fuad Sahouri, founder and president of Sahouri Insurance as well as founder and president of the ABPA Institute. Also in attendance were the Washington-based ambassadors of Liechtenstein and Mongolia—Georg Sparber and Batbayar Ulziidelger—as well as Alejandra Solano, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the Organization of American States.
This year’s cherry blossom festival is especially meaningful, Tomita said, “because we are coming out of the shadow of the pandemic—and because the people in Ukraine are fighting for their independence and freedom. So it’s not just a celebration of our friendship, but also a celebration of the value we cherish most: freedom.”
Market volatility ‘a wake-up call to Japan’ and the West
To that end, Tomita says he was surprised not only by the West’s united front against the Kremlin, but also by the strong support of Ukraine demonstrated by Japan, whose parliament gave Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a standing ovation after he addressed lawmakers by video. Among other things, Tokyo has blocked several Russian banks from the SWIFT financial system, frozen the assets of some oligarchs and tightened technology exports to Russia.
“We’ve taken almost all the measures as those taken by the United States and like-minded countries—export sanctions [against Russia], humanitarian assistance, even military assistance and relocating refugees to Japan,” he said. “Of course, the sanctions are a two-way street. This has come in the wake of other dislocations we have had to endure because of the pandemic.”
Even before Russia’s war with Ukraine, the ambassador said, “we had a very tight energy market, and there will be repercussions. We are going to see food and fuel prices go up, but there will be very solid public support. This also give us an opportunity to look at where we should make efforts to improve our resilience.”
About 8% of Japan’s total natural gas imports come from Russia. While that may not seem significant, Tomita said, “utility companies usually have long-term contracts, and sometimes they find it difficult to switch resources to different types. I think they’ll be hesitant to transfer rising prices to consumers.”
So for the time being, Japan will not cut off all Russian energy imports, though he said “we’re not excluding the possibility of taking further measures”—especially if atrocities keep mounting.
“This is a wakeup call to Japan and other countries about the fragility of the energy market, and it comes at a time when we have to make very strenuous efforts to achieve climate change targets,” the ambassador said. “I think it’s premature for me to make predictions that will come out of this soul-searching, but I think there has to be very serious discussions on these things.”
Pyongyang’s missile tests add to sense of urgency
Meanwhile, tensions continue over the ownership of the four southernmost islands in the Kuril Island chain, which stretches from the Japanese island of Hokkaido north to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.
“During World War II, there was a neutrality pact between Japan and the USSR. But just before the war ended, the Soviet Union declared this treaty void and went on to occupy these four islands. We haven’t been able to resolve this issue,” said Tomita.
Following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, he explained, “the Russian government decided that Japan was not a very friendly country and announced a suspension of the ongoing negotiations. We find this Russian attitude totally unacceptable and uncalled for, because we were just responding to very unreasonable behavior.”
As if that’s not enough, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has refused to engage in talks with the Biden administration. On March 24, Japan extended sanctions against the hermit dictatorship after it claimed to have launched a new kind of intercontinental ballistic missile that landed in Japanese waters.
“Up to, say, 10 years ago, we generally thought that time was on our side, because we always predicted the regime would collapse,” said Tomita, who spent considerable time on North Korea issues when he was Japan’s ambassador in Seoul. “But the regime is still there. It has taken advantage of this lack of progress to achieve increasing sophisitication in their weapons. So it’s safe to say that timing is not exactly on our side. We have a sense of urgency that’s been reinforced by the recent launch of the ICBM—at a time when we’re focusing on Ukraine.”
In short, he said, “We live in a very rough neighborhood, and instability in the region is increasing. The question needs to be asked whether Japan is up to the job. This question needs to be answered not just by Japan alone, but in conjunction with the United States.”
Pandemic affecting economy despite high vaccination rate
Turning to COVID-19, Tomita said that roughly 80% of Japan’s eligible population has received two doses, but that booster rates lag behind. Even so, only 6.7 million people have been infected and the death toll stands at a relatively low 28,336 (as of April 4) out of a population of some 125.8 million.
“Every death is a tragedy, but I think we have managed to contain the damage as much as possible,” he said. “We cannot be complacent. The government remains vigilant, but at the same time, I think we need to reassure people that we can make a transition to normalcy.”
Asked if a “zero-covid policy” is sustainable, Tomita said his government has put some constraints on peoples’ activities.
“But even at the height of the pandemic, we never completely closed down. Of course, we asked restaurants to shorten their opening hours and asked people to wear masks and keep social distancing, but we haven’t taken any coercive measures,” he said, explaining that Japan has benefitted from a generally cooperative attitude toward public hygiene. “People wore masks during flu season even before the pandemic.”
Tomita added: “I don’t think I should be too hasty in making predictions because we have declared victory several times, and every time we prove to be premature. You never totally eliminate the pandemic.”
Still, the Japanese government under President Fumio Kishida, who took office last October, is considering an $8.1 billion stimulus package to ease the impact of surging energy, commodity and grain prices, potentially sparking inflation. Gawel asked Tomita if that concerns him.
“Inflation is something we have to be very careful about,” he said. “Up until now, the government’s emphasis has been on stimulating the economy.”
Tomita: ‘I’ve been very much impressed’ by Joe Biden
Meanwhile, Washington and Tokyo have been working to patch up their own trade disputes amid rising economic aggression from China.
“We have been pleased to see resolution of the issues, although steel and aluminum have only been partially resolved. On top of working together to address these bilateral issues, our two countries share a very important role in promoting an open and rules-based trading in the wider region. I fully appreciate there’s a political reality that prevents the US from returning to the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], But I’m glad the administration is coming out with a new Pacific economic initiative. We are working with the US government to flesh out this idea.”
Before wrapping up the event, Gawel asked the ambassador about his thoughts on Joe Biden and the importance of world leaders having personal connections.
“When the earthquake and tsunami hit [in 2011], Vice President Biden was one of the first foreign leaders to come to northern Japan and visit the affected areas. I accompanied him on this trip. I was really impressed with his affinity toward people. He was so gracious in consoling people in temporary housing after being evacuated from their houses. That was my first contact with Joe Biden. Ever since, I’ve been very much impressed,” Tomita replied.
“I was appointed as ambassador in January of last year. but I didn’t expect this appointment, because I had been ambassador to South Korea for just one year,” he said. “Ambassadors usually stay two or three years, but after President Biden won the election last year. Tokyo thought I would be a good fit because I knew most of the people working for the Obama administration.”
He added, jokingly, that “whenever I see Republicans, I tell them ‘it’s your fault that I’m here.”