Masuo Nishibayashi
Masuo Nishibayashi

Japan has appointed an Arctic Ambassador, a press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states. Masuo Nishibayashi is already the Ambassador in charge of Cultural Exchange, so he will now fill two roles simultaneously. Nishibayashi joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1983 and has spent most of his career in the Americas. He has served as Consul General in Boston and Sao Paulo, Latin American and Caribbean Affairs Bureau Counsellor, and Ambassador to Cuba, among other positions.

Nishibayashi will represent Japan at Arctic Council meetings including the upcoming eighth Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna, Sweden. Justifying the appointment of an Arctic Ambassador, MoFA’s press release explains: “Japan is located outside the Arctic region, but as a maritime state and one that attaches much importance to global environmental issues, it needs to be appropriately involved in international discussions regarding the Arctic.” By having an Arctic Ambassador, Japan is demonstrating its commitment to remain involved in polar affairs. Furthermore, the appointment of an Arctic Ambassador may help to make Japan’s policies in the Arctic more coherent, as there are currently numerous agencies that are involved – a similar situation to the U.S., where there is a lack of coherence in terms of policymaking due to competing agencies and interests. Japan applied for Arctic Council permanent observer status in 2009 and eagerly anticipates a decision on its application, which will likely be made at the May meeting. The country has been involved in polar research since the 1950s and is especially interested in climate change research. Oil and natural gas resources could also prove valuable, especially as the country decreases its reliance on nuclear power.

Arctic shipping also attracts Japan to the north, as the Northern Sea Route could prove to be an important shipping lane to reach Europe. In January, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was supposed to give a speech entitled “The Bounty of the Open Seas: Five New Principles for Japanese Diplomacy” to the CSIS in Jakarta. Due to changes to his itinerary, he was unable to deliver his talk, but the MoFA still posted the text of the would-be speech online. In it, Abe states, “In light of our geographic circumstances, the two objectives are natural and fundamental imperatives for Japan, a nation surrounded by ocean and deriving its sustenance from those oceans – a nation that views the safety of the seas as its own safety. Though times may change, these objectives remain immutable.” As an island nation, Japan relies on shipping to import and export most of its goods, so maritime security, economic security, and national security are inseparable.

Japan also has made statements supporting indigenous peoples in the Arctic, citing its own experience with the indigenous Ainu people of Japan. The Ainu have historically been oppressed though, and the government only recognized them as an indigenous people in 2008. The Ainu are not often considered to be an Arctic people, but they do share many similarities with Arctic aboriginal groups, such as animist beliefs. Interestingly, an exhibit on the Ainu at the Smithsonian Museum in 1999 was called “Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People,” and one of the curators was the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s Curator of Arctic Anthropology and director of the Arctic Studies Center. This map of Arctic indigenous peoples by W.K. Dallmann also includes the Ainu as an Arctic people, thereby making Japan an Arctic country.

In November 2012, Japan’s Parliamentary Senior Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shuji Kira, gave a speech at the meeting between the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council and Observers/Ad-hoc Observers. Like the other Asian states that are trying to convince the members states as to why they merit permanent observer status, Kira expressed his respect for the sovereignty of the Arctic states. He said, “As a State who has always valued the “rule of law”, let us reiterate our support to the view expressed in the Ilulissat Declaration that an extensive international legal framework, including the law of the sea, applies to the Arctic Ocean. In committing to this legal framework, it is needless to say that Japan recognizes and respects sovereignty, sovereign rights, and  jurisdiction of the Members of the Arctic Council.”

In Abe’s would-be speech to the CSIS in Indonesia outlining the country’s five principles for diplomacy, the second principle he expressed entails “ensuring that the seas, which are the most vital commons to us all, are governed by laws and rules, not by might.” Given the context of his speech, which mostly focused on the Asian seas, it appears that Abe might be rebuking China for its recent actions around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Indeed, in another speech that Abe actually gave to the  Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., he argued: “A rules-promoter, a commons’ guardian, and an effective ally and partner to the U.S. and other democracies, are all roles that Japan MUST fulfill.” Speaking of the island conflict with China, Abe claimed, “History and international law both attest that the islands are Japan’s sovereign territory. After all, for the long period between 1895 and 1971, no challenge was made by anyone against the Japanese sovereignty. We simply cannot tolerate any challenge now, or in the future. No nation should underestimate the firmness of our resolve. No one should ever doubt the robustness of the Japan-U.S. Alliance.” Indeed, Japan and the U.S. are holding talks in Hawaii discussing how to respond to various scenarios that might unfold in the islands, including a Chinese invasion — much to Beijing’s consternation, as Reuters reports. Japan therefore has a clear interest in supporting the historical sovereignty of Arctic states in their territory, as it helps to bolster its own claim to title in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Japan is a maritime nation, and the opening of the Arctic shipping lanes means that it has a commercial interest in the region. Politically, it also seeks to position itself as a regional actor committed to the rule of law and the Law of the Sea, in line with the Ilulissat Declaration. In the Arctic, territory is the first provider of legitimacy, but Japan is doing everything it can to gain legitimacy through rhetorical, political, and diplomatic actions.

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