Vol. 6, No. 13 (July 01, 2013)

Depoliticized diplomacy: Japan’s approach to Central Asia and the South Caucasus

Rahman Shahhuseynli, Ph.D.
The Institute for the Liberal Arts
Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan

Japan’s engagement with the countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, is based on a politics-free diplomacy, a reality that has led some—both in Japan and in the CASC region—to conclude that Tokyo has not succeeded in living up to the expectations of the CASC states (Len, et al 2008).  On closer examination, however, it is clear that there are many internal and external factors, as well as geopolitical hindrances, that have contributed to Japan’s relatively shallow presence in the region. 

Two major factors—the geographical situation in which Japan finds itself and the mentality of the Japanese people—have profoundly affected diplomacy of the state.  As an island country, Japan consists of four main and over six thousand tiny islands.  It is linguistically and culturally homogeneous with 98.5 percent of its population ethnic Japanese. [1] Located in the middle of the ocean, the Japanese people have been predominantly inward looking (Ogoura 2009).  While some might argue that this pattern is limited to the general population, a closer examination shows that it is also true of the country’s political elite.  Indeed, many Japanese intellectuals acknowledge their sharp differences or uniqueness and explain these with reference to being “shimaguni seishin” (island country ethos) or “shimaguni konjo” (insularity) (Khan 1997, p. 45).

For many centuries, the Japanese rulers have preferred to have less interaction with outsiders, but depend more on the strong solidarity of the inhabitants of the islands.  From the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, Tokugawa shogunate took strict isolation measures to cut or minimize country’s ties with the outsiders (Khan 1997).  Such trends were commonly accepted and strictly followed until Japan was forced by foreign powers “to open its doors” to outsiders in the mid-nineteenth century (Iwasawa 2001, p. 123).  Although there have been revolutionary changes in the minds of its people as well as in the political spheres, elements of that past can be observed in many aspects of life, as well as in the country’s relations with other countries. 
Japan, which has experienced a wide variety of geopolitical shocks over the last 150 years, underwent another one in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR, an event which undermined one of the country’s key post-World War II foreign policy pillars.  Tokyo was simply unprepared for the appearance of the new countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus.  While it quickly recognized them, [2] the Japanese government was relatively slow in establishing full-scale ties with them, since most Japanese policy makers viewed them as part of Russia’s sphere of influence (Mihalka 2007, p. 22).  Japan has now opened several embassies in the CASC states, [3] but it has continued to keep in touch with some of them through its diplomatic representatives in Moscow.  It still does not have an embassy in Yerevan, although Armenia established one in Tokyo in June 2010. [4] Instead, Japan’s embassy in Moscow is jointly accredited to Armenia. [5]

A major reason for Japan’s slow and careful approach towards this region has been its long-standing territorial dispute with Russia.  Japan still hopes it would regain the Northern Territories occupied by the Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II (Yasmann 2005).  Tokyo had been inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, which reunified the two Germany formally on October 3, 1990 (Malley-Morrison 2009, p. 10).  That precedent made the Japanese policy-makers even more confident given the economically depressed and politically unstable Russia of the time. 

Traditionally, Japan has maneuvered within the foreign policy priorities of the USA, its closest ally.  It also closely observes and tries to keep a harmony with the interests of leading European nations, particularly when it comes to Japan’s involvement in western and central Eurasia. [6] This approach is also apparent in the case of the CASC region.  Anxious to avoid making a mistake, Japan has preferred and followed a “wait-and-see” stance with regard to establishing closer ties with the regional states.  But having seen business opportunities in the CASC, Japan has in recent years worked hard to gain an economic foothold in this region.  Tokyo has thus readjusted its policy with regard to the post-Soviet realm, re-considered its stance on the issues of Kuril Island and CASC, and channeled its resources and efforts towards the latter without any further delays (Jones 1992, p. 3). 

Immediately after 1991, the CASC states were eager to welcome any country, which wanted to establish relations.  Such inter-state relations were deemed instrumental to the consolidation of their newly gained independence.  They also hoped to attract foreign investments to boost economies paralyzed by the collapse of the centralized and state controlled Soviet economy.  Not surprisingly, given that, CASC quickly became an area of fierce competition among world’s leading nations.  Tokyo, too, was well aware of importance of having multi-sided and deep-rooted relations with the CASC states.  Hoping to get its share from the region, Japan moved in with one of its traditional foreign policy tools—checkbook diplomacy—economic aid in the form of Official Development Assistance (ODA) in return for closer cooperation.  However, to strengthen the relations with the CASC states, Japan has had to commit more in terms of both economic assistance and political activism. 

At least these were the expectations of the CASC governments (Len, et al 2008).  Japan managed to live up to the expectations in the field of economic assistance.  The volume of Japanese ODA to these newly independent states prompted an increase and soon exceeded that from European countries and the United States.  With such generous economic assistance Japan had already offered a hand of cooperation to the CASC states, which seemed to have accepted it with pleasure.  Nevertheless, Japan’s presence in the regional politics has remained relatively small compared to that of other outside powers. 

The concept of “Eurasian Diplomacy,” formulated by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1997 was the first effort by Japan to develop a comprehensive policy for the region.  That document emphasized improving relations with Russia and China as well as establishing a Japanese presence in the CASC region.  It focused on energy, economic, cultural, educational, and human resource issues.  Because of Russian irritation over outside penetration into its “sphere of influence,” Japan continued to move cautiously, given that improved ties with Moscow and the possible solution of the Northern Territories issue are central concerns in Japan. 

One way or another, by 2000, Tokyo concluded that it no longer had to treat the CASC countries as Russia’s backyard.  Instead, Japanese policy makers adopted the idea of promoting the restoration of the ancient Silk Road across the region.  The CASC portion of this new approach focused on political dialogue, economic cooperation and cooperation in nuclear non-proliferation, democratization and maintaining stability.  It is worth noting in this regard that this “Eurasian diplomacy” reflects a broader view than has been typical of Japanese foreign policy since 1945 (Takeshi 2007).

Silk Road Diplomacy called for Japan to intensify its economic assistance through its Official Development Assistance program.  As a result, Japan became the largest donor to the region in terms of loans and grants.  A decade after the proclaimed Silk Road Diplomacy, the Japanese assistance to Central Asia in the form of long-term and low interest loans totaled USD 2 billion, which was mainly used for the construction of infrastructure.  Japan’s assistance was also in the form of grants and technical assistance, which totaled USD 600. [7] Japan is still continuing this approach in the CASC region. 

Although Silk Road Diplomacy encompasses a wider geography, Tokyo appears to have focused more on Central Asia than on the South Caucasus.  There are several reasons for this: First, it is the geographical location and proximity of Central Asia that makes it essential for both sides to have closer and multi-sided relations.  Second, there is a constant rivalry between Japan and China over that geostrategic region (Zhuangzhi 2007).  And third, Japan is an energy importer, as the third largest petroleum consumer in the world. [8] It consumes 4.5 million barrels per day, 87 percent of which comes from the Middle East. [9] Given turmoil there, Japan has always been in search of more stable sources of supply, and even though most of the production from the CASC region flows westward with no direct supply to the Japanese market, it does make important contribution to global energy supply and market stability, something that is “important for Japan” (VOA 2009).  One Japanese foreign minister noted that, “Japan does not import oil or gas directly from the region, but views that market as a source for a stable supply, if there is turmoil in the Middle East or supplies from other oil exporting countries become unreliable” (VOA 2009). 

Japanese policy makers often talk about dialogue with others.  Such a concept reflects Japanese culture and must be understood by Tokyo’s various partners, because it is often a time-consuming process.  The “Central Asia plus Japan” dialogue initiative was announced by Foreign Minister Yuriko Kawaguchi in 2004.  The foreign ministers of Japan and all the countries of Central Asia except Turkmenistan subsequently gathered in Astana to discuss future cooperation.  That meeting addressed a wide range of issues concerning the region and their implications for Japan.  Importantly, it sought to foster multilateral relations, to encourage Central Asian regional integration, and to enhance the capacities of these countries to deal with regional problems by regional means.  Succeeding Japanese foreign ministers have continued this practice (Dadabaev 2006).

Japan would eagerly have initiated a “Japan plus the South Caucasus” Dialogue, if the three countries of that region could agree, but conflicts among them and especially Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani territory have made that impossible.  Nonetheless, Japan has taken a few steps in that direction by promoting the “GUAM plus Japan” dialogue, which includes Azerbaijan and Georgia, but not Armenia.  Several high level exchanges have taken place between the parties. 

The global economic recession led Japan to re-consider its once ambitious foreign policy outlook.  As a result, Tokyo has postponed or narrowed the scope of its diplomatic initiatives in the CASC region.  Moreover, it has concluded that its “dialogue” and “plus” arrangements were not proving to be as useful as it had hoped.  Japan’s passivity, in turn, has allowed other powers to make progress, a development that has worked against the CASC states, because they now confront a situation in which fewer countries are playing any role there. 

In this new environment, Japan’s Northern Territories problem with Russia has left little room for Japanese policy makers to get involved with the CASC region in a comprehensive way.  Tokyo still believes that engaging actively in political, security, and energy issues in this sensitive region could lead Moscow to dig in its heels on the territorial dispute.  In addition, Japan appears increasingly concerned about security at home now challenged by North Korea (Koshoji 2009).  Given that threat, Tokyo cannot afford to offend Russia or China.  


Dadabaev, Timur (2006) “Japan’s Central Asian Diplomacy and its Implications,” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst, June.
Iwasawa, Yuji (2001) “Japan’s Interaction with International Law: The Case of State Immunity,” in Ando, Nisuke, ed. (2001) Japan and International Law: Past, Present and Future (Japanese Association of International Law).

Jones, Clayton (1992) “Japan Diverts Aid to Central Asia in Bid for Strategic Edge,” Christian Science Monitor, 20 October.
Khan, Yoshimitsu (1997) Japanese Moral Education: Past and Present (Associated University Press).

Koshoji, Hiroyuki (2009) “North Korean Threat to Japan,” United Press International, 16 March, available at: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2009/03/16/Analysis-North-Korean-threat-to-Japan/UPI-60071237239346 (accessed 29 June 2013).

Len, Christopher, Uyama Tomohiko, & Hirose Tetsuya, eds. (2008) Japan’s Silk Road Diplomacy: Paving the Road Ahead (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program). 

Malley-Morrison, Kathleen (2009) “State Violence and the Right to Peace: Western Europe and North America” (ABC-CLIO).

Mihalka, Michael (2007) “Not Much of a Game: Security Dynamics in Central Asia,” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Vol 5, No. 2, pp. 21-39. 

Ogoura, Kazuo (2009) “Why is Japan introverted?” The Japan Times Online, 14 July, available at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/eo20090714ko.html#.T-30_xftvXo (accessed 29 June 2013). 

Takeshi, Yuasa (2007) “Japan’s Multilateral Approach toward Central Asia,” Acta Slavica Iaponica, No. 16, pp. 65-84. 

VOA (2009) “Japan Launches ‘Silk Road Diplomacy’ in Central Asia,” Voice of America, 31 October, available at http://www.voanews.com/articleprintview/320396.html (accessed 10 June 2013).

Yasmann, Victor (2005) “World War II—60 Years After: Russia And Japan Still Searching For Closure,” RFE/RL, 6 May, available at http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1058753.html (accessed 18 June 2013).

Zhuangzhi, Sun (2007) “The Relationship between China and Central Asia,” in Akihiro, Iwashita (2007) Eager Eyes Fixed on Eurasia: Russia and its Neighbors in Crisis (Slavic Eurasian Studies Series, Slavic Research Center), pp. 41-63.


[1] See CIA Factbook: Japan, available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ja.html (accessed 19 June 2013).

[2] See Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs official website at http://www.mofa.go.jp (accessed 21 June 2013).

[3] Japan opened its first embassies in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in January 1993.  Establishing diplomatic representatives in the CASC states has continued since then. 

[4] See the official website of the Embassy of Armenia in Japan at http://japan.mfa.am/en/bilateral-jp (accessed 24 June 2013).

[5] See the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs official website at
http://www.mofa.go.jp/about/emb_cons/over/europe.html (accessed 21 June 2013).

[6] Having coherent foreign policies with its major allies have always been observed in the Japanese diplomacy since the end of WWII.  Adherence to such a tradition has been mentioned many times at the highest level in Japan.  For example, in a speech to the policymakers at the Diet in January 2007, Taro Aso, Minister for Foreing Affairs of Japan, reaffirmed that Japan will work with nations, “such as the USA, Asutralia, the UK, France, Germany, and other natons of Europe” to achieve its goals. 

[7] See the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs official website at http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/gaiko/oda/data/index.html (accessed 1 June 2013).

[8] According to Energy Information Administration (EIA), the first and second biggest consumers are the USA and China. 

[9] See Energy Information Administration (EIA) 2011 Statistics at http://www.eia.gov/cabs/japan/Full.html (accessed 15 June 2013).