„There are two quite different stories about war and peace in Japan“


The invasion of Ukraine has shocked Japan. The country participates in the sanctions against Russia. Still, people in Japan look at the war in Europe against the backdrop of security threats in their Northeast Asian region, says Akira Kawasaki, a peace activist with the Japanese NGO Peace Boat. He sees opportunities for civil society action even under current war conditions.

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Peace Boat activists in front of the Hiroshima Dome.

Akira Kawasaki is a member of the Executive Committee of “Peace Boat”, a Japan-based international NGO which promotes peace, human rights, and sustainability. Established in 1983, it holds Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations (UN). Peace Boat carries out its main activities through a passenger ship that travels the world. Peace Boat’s activities onboard and in port empower participants, strengthen local capacity for sustainability, and build people-to-people cooperation beyond borders. Peace Boat is part of many peace networks, including a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).


Axel Harneit-Sievers: Akira-san, with Peace Boat, you have been working as a peace activist for decades. Now Russia has invaded Ukraine. How does Japanese society look at this war?

Akira Kawasaki: People are so shocked. No one – myself included – really expected this war, even though the US government had repeatedly warned about the possibility. But many of us, including myself, thought that this was a kind of a diplomatic performance; no one was seriously prepared for an actual military invasion.

Getting all these media reports about the war and the bombings and suffering and killing, firstly, people were shocked and got upset, angry, sad. But more recently, they are getting tired and really getting sick because of that situation. What has happened – a clear traditional invasion by a major state over 70 years since the end of World War II - is so much beyond people's expectations and imagination.

However, I easily thought of the US invasion of Iraq just 20 years ago and also what the Russia is doing now. It's very similar to what Japan did in invading China and South East Asia in World War II. People with some sort of international education and knowledge may compare the current situation in that way. But for most people it is a totally shocking, unexpected and brutal thing.

And then many people are thinking: what would happen if Japan is invaded?

Is there a serious fear about this – or is that more a hypothetical consideration? Do people in Japan view the Ukraine war through the lens of their own regional situation?

Well, half and half. The top news every evening is about Ukraine, the second news is COVID, and third news is North Korea, developing nuclear weapons and missiles. And the pace of launching missiles has been really increasing since January. So, people easily compare the situation. It's not an imminent threat, but people are comparing and see the analogy. Then, secondly, we have China that sees some islands disputed between China and Japan. And then, thirdly, China could invade Taiwan. These three scenarios are all being discussed all the time.

How has Japan’s government been reacting to the invasion of Ukraine, and how do people see that?

Akira Kawasaki is a member of the Executive Committee of Peace Boat and sitting President and International Steering Group member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Since 2008, he coordinates “Global Voyage for a Nuclear-Free World: Peace Boat Hibakusha Project” that the atomic-bomb survivors travel around the world to raise public awareness on nuclear danger. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Kawasaki played central roles in organizing two Global Conferences for a Nuclear Power Free World in Japan in January and Decameter 2012.

The government reaction has two sides. One is to basically work with other Western states in condemning Russia and putting strong sanctions on to Russia and to provide humanitarian support to Ukraine. There is a kind of general support by the public to keep and work on this line, although it has some economic repercussions, as export and import between Japan and Russia have become extremely limited due to strict sanctions. But looking at the opinion polls, people at least so far are happy with some sort of those repercussions.

Also Japan's response and the mainly humanitarian area is basically and nonmilitary reactions so far, providing defense equipment like helmets and bullet-proof vests, things that can be categorized as arms in a legal sense but are not to for the combat purposes or of a lethal nature. Generally speaking, the stance is clear. Japan's assistance is not offensive. There is a general consensus to support that albeit experts are debating procedural issues regarding the provision of defense equipment.

And, very interestingly, when President Zelensky made a video speech to the National Diet (Parliament) of Japan, he didn't ask for armed support. He asked Japan to play a role in building UN systems better or to support recovery efforts after the war – soft power approaches. So I think Zelensky and his team studied a lot well in advance before the speech because he understood Japanese society's nature, and that there are constitutional provisions against direct military assistance.

But the problem is that there is a different type of Japanese reaction, which is more militaristic. Tomorrow I'll be participating in a press conference together with many Japanese NGOs and non-governmental scholars, to oppose a new proposal coming from the ruling party (Liberal Democratic Party, LDP), to call on government officially to acquire attack capability. Based on the current pacifist constitution, we can react only after some attack has happened. But the now LDP is proposing to change the policy, without changing the constitution itself, to allow the attack on an enemy base, understood as a part of defensive policy. So the concept of defense is widened. This is the first point.

Point two is the plan to double the defense budget. Until recently, 1% of GDP has been a kind of standard for Japanese defense spending, increasing to like 1.2 or 1.3 recently. But now the new LDP proposal is to target 2% or more, and they are citing the NATO practice.

Point three: arms exports remain a contentious issue. The LDP proposal is vaguely suggesting that under certain conditions, Japan should be able to send lethal weapons to countries under actual combat.

So all these three points I cannot accept from the peace campaign point of view.

So the government plans to stretch the constitutional limits of Japan’s military capacity?

It's not yet government policy but a policy of the ruling LDP party. Maybe half of their members are proposing this. It is unclear how much the government will accept this. There are financial constraints, and a very vocal junior partner within the ruling coalition, Komeito, which is Buddhist in character, is talking more with peace orientation.

Are popular perceptions changing?

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Let me give you a personal example - the barber that I visit once a month to cut my hair. He is almost the same age like me, mid-50s. I went there at the end of February, soon after the Russian invasion, and he said: This war is small. It will soon end. The Ukraine will just have to follow Russian demands.

End of March I went to the same barber again, and he said: “Akira-san, we in Japan should think of acquiring nuclear weapons.”--- And he knows that I'm working with a peace NGO. So he says, yes, I know that you are opposed to nuclear weapons, but I have to say, we have to start discussing nuclear weapons. That it was kind of not a dramatic change of his mind.

I'm planning to go to the barber again later this week and I am looking forward to hear his view.

At the end of February, former Prime Minister Abe publicly said on TV that Japan should start thinking of “nuclear sharing” (like in Germany) in response to situation similar to Ukraine. It sparked a big debate. Some opinion polls were conducted. I think about 70% of people said no to nuclear sharing. But when the question was like “Should we discuss nuclear sharing or we should not discuss?”, the answer was about half and half.

Public opinion in Japan supporting peace has been, mainly, established and maintained by those who directly experienced and suffered from World War Two. I myself have been so much influenced by remarks or speeches of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their role has been really unique in the Japanese peace movement or any mass media program about peace. Even after the Russian invasion, those survivors of the World War Two, especially those who experienced atomic bombing, are the center frontline of the anti-war campaign.

For example, we have a dedicated web page with videos or like remarks by Hiroshima and Nagasaki people who are calling on Russia or the people in Russia and Eastern Europe to stop the war and not to use nuclear weapons and so on.

But people born after World War Two do not have such a direct, strong memory of war. The war in Ukraine is perhaps the first very real war experience for the present young generation – mediated through media, of course. They see invaders coming in and people resisting with arms, fighting for their right to defend their country. So this is totally different from what the survivors of the World War Two are speaking.

So there are two quite different stories about war and peace in Japan, and Japanese policy will be defined by both, the memory of World War Two and the current pre-World War Three situation. Just how the two sides reconcile or interact in Japan is a very important turning point.

You are calling it a pre-World War Three situation? Do you foresee further escalation?

Yes, I think we can say it like that. I cannot exclude escalation. And we really have to think of the risk of a prolonged war situation.

How do you see Germany and the European situation now?

We Japanese see Germans and Germany as a model in many ways. When Germany decided to dispatch forces outside of NATO, about 25 years ago, in former Yugoslavia, this had a very big impact on the debate about Japan's pacifist constitution. That is a result of Japan's defeat in World War Two, based on the reflection that because of what Japan did during and before the World War to the international community, Japan shouldn't be armed. That sort of spirit has been maintained so far. I think even today, that sort of consensus exists.

It's difficult for me now to say what Germany or the Europeans should do, because Europe is now a battlefield. So I'm just watching it. But I think that Japan has its own approach. But Germany is very special to the Japanese. So it's really complicated.

It is a political decision to provide military support to a country that is under invasion, defending itself. It's about the country's sovereignty and integrity. So in that sense, in the short term, those kind of neutral support may be necessary in a European context. I'm not supporting [to send arms] from Japan, but in a European context, even from neighbors context, it may be.

What do you think Japan can and should do?

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As mentioned before, I was surprised, even moved, that President Zelensky, under such circumstances, was talking about a post-war, international order when addressing the Japanese Diet. So how we can ensure such international security framework and the how United Nations or other international bodies can support those system? Policy options should be prepared now; those who have that capacity should start to prepare for that. I was so shocked when Japanese policy makers were asked by President Zelensky himself to take the role when he said Japan can play a role in a postwar reconciliation process. So I think this is something European leaders also discussed.

Listening to recent statements by the American Secretary of Defence, the definition of what the war is all about appears to be changing: it’s not any more merely about defending Ukraine; it’s also about weakening Russian military capacity in the longer term.

The Defense Secretary’s remark is so worrying and troubling. I said that defending Ukraine would be okay. But now the U.S. is saying, okay, let's weaken the Russian regime, so the policy goal of the West can be redefined as regime change in Russia, or putting Putin down, or changing Russia. And for those political purposes, let's use Ukraine. And if Western political leaders try to use the Ukrainian people to fight for those political purposes with Western arms, then that would be something totally different from what I said.

How does the Ukraine war look like from a wider Asian perspective?

I can add to this discussion from the Asian perspective. Japan is on the western side of the conflict, in a political sense, but we have China and also India not so far from us. They, and also Turkey, are categorized as Asia. I think those countries may be playing some constructive role for a political settlement. That is something what we are discussing among our groups, not only within Japan, but also internationally.

The dominant narrative about the war is between Russia and the West, a narrative of simple black and white. It is a bipolar narrative. China is criticized for not taking the side with the West. However, as far as we can see China is not participating in sanctions, but they repeatedly said that China is ready to play a constructive role to achieve a peaceful solution.

Those countries that are intentionally keeping distance from the West. They do not support the invasion, they can play a more constructive role, and they should be encouraged to do so.

In an ideal world, the Japanese government should be a good mediator. But the current government is not taking such role; they are really busy in following the Western line, the NATO type of line. But we as civil society may have some different channels with Beijing or what some other countries, including through networks. So we are discussing using those channels and to go for some silent but effective diplomacy to bring a ceasefire and peaceful settlement as soon as possible.

And your contact network includes actors in China as well?

Yes, we have contact with Chinese experts, not government directly, but government-sponsored experts, security experts. And they are really close to us. These groups and networks also cover the Eastern part of Russia, the area of Vladivostok. We are contacting those security experts and having a very frank conversation with them. We feel that personal perceptions of those experts in Beijing or Vladivostok are quite different from the official line of those governments talking to the media.

A peaceful settlement of the Korean nuclear missile situation, or having a good dialogue between Japan, China, U.S., this is very important for those eastern part of Russia. And their experts are so open minded and we are having very informal off-the-record conversations. It has been very much useful. So we are trying to use that connection for the sake of peace.

The China-Japan relations, you know, even in a normal situation, it's usually really severe politically. The politicians of Japan and China are battling each other in speeches. But our economic and social ties are very close. So the business leaders are trying to mitigate those tension for their business purposes. That sort of connections exist in the business community and also in civil society. Although the mass media will be dominated by talk about political positioning, some sort of engagement continues. And I think that's something we can contribute because Xi Jinping may be the only one who Vladimir Putin can, you know, rely on and really seriously talk to.

So if that's the case, we really try to get Xi Jinping to understand at least the importance of peace or at least the importance of the value of the UN Charter and the basic principles underlying it.


Interviewer: Axel Harneit-Sievers. The interview was held online on 27 April, 2022.