Charting Japan’s Arctic Strategy

The Center for East Asia Policy Studies at The Brookings Institute held a panel discussion to assess the components of Japan’s Arctic strategy.


Up until 2013, Japan’s involvement in the Arctic had been primarily scientific research-based. But in 2013, Japan appointed its first Arctic ambassador, and recently gained observer status in the Arctic Council (AC). Japan’s released its first official National Arctic Policy on Oct. 16, 2015.

With the delivery of Japan’s actionable strategies for the Arctic, the Brookings panel discussed specific aspects including:

  • Expanded cooperation with the U.S. in an uncharted area.
  • Interaction with Russia in the post-Ukraine era.
  • The possibility that China and Japan could cooperate in articulating the views of non-Arctic nations.


The full webcast is available here.


In her opening remarks, Mireya Solis said Japan’s growing interest in the Arctic is due to the rapid change that is transforming the region’s geopolitics and economics. From an international commerce point of view, the Arctic could provide a more efficient route to connect Asia and Europe. Japan could also gain another competitive advantage from the Arctic’s vast amount of natural resources.


The Arctic is also a region where the challenges are plentiful. Successful stewardship in a vulnerable environment will require the careful balancing of resources with environmental conservation and ensuring benefits for the indigenous people.


Solis noted that Japan is not the only non-Arctic country interested in the region. Five other Asian countries have obtained observer status with the AC. Though Japan has recently “stepped up its game” in the Arctic, its research effort goes back decades.


In her keynote address, Kazuko Shiraishi, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan in charge of Arctic Affairs, said she was an advocate of sending the important message to the international community that the Arctic is a pressing challenge for all of us.


Arctic climate change has raised sea levels as well as creating other challenges that could impact the entire global environment. Climate change is no longer its own problem, it impacts all sectors. Scientists point out that human activities, even those outside the Arctic region, can similarly impact Arctic climate change. Development and protection should not be a tradeoff.


Japan has addressed this by conducting scientific research and observation in the Arctic. Concerned states have the ability to contribute solutions, which is why Japan released its first comprehensive Arctic Policy. Amb. Shiraishi elaborated on the contents of the new policy that addresses the Arctic strategically.


Amb. Shiraishi outlined Japan’s seven policies:

  1. Make fuller use of Japan’s strengths in science and technology from a global view point.
  2. Give full consideration to vulnerable Arctic environment and ecosystems.
  3. Promote international cooperation in a peaceful manner to advance Japan’s various interests in the region
    1. By engaging in constructive cooperation with the international community to advance things like international rule making.
    2. By using its scientific expertise in this area.
    3. By increasing its contribution to the AC to underscore the role of observer states for a vital AC in the future.
  4. Respect the rights of indigenous people and continuity in their indigenous social traditions.
  5. Pay attention to security environments in the Arctic.
  6. Promote economic & social compatibility.
  7. Advance Arctic resource development and Arctic sea routes.


Japan’s policy attaches the highest importance to the AC. Observers can substantially contribute to activities of the AC, but by using their strengths, they can also advance the U.S. State Department’s theme of “One Arctic.”


Solis recognized the first ever Arctic national policy as a milestone for Japan, and reminded the audience and speakers to think of the challenges of implementation and how Japan’s bureaucratic sectionalism may be a barrier.


Questions from the Audience to Amb. Shiraishi


Q: You have placed a lot of emphasis on Japan’s eagerness to play a larger role in Observer status, and that observers have the right to participate and are expected to contribute on the side of data and science. Can you speak more of what Japan has done in this area?


A: We have participated on various task forces and research initiatives. We are proud that Japan is the leading country on research on ocean acidification and black carbon. Japan’s expertise can be used to address these issues in the Arctic.


Q: With five Asian countries joining the AC as Observers at the same time, has anyone thought about forming an Asian caucus?


A: There is direct collaboration between some Arctic Council Observers, but there has been not direct coordination among the five Asian countries.


Q: Does the U.S. chairmanship of AC give Japan a more conducive role in the Arctic?


A: The U.S. will host a Senior Arctic Officials’ conference one day before this meeting and the U.S., for the first time, will have a session for Observers, which offers the opportunity to discuss the Observers’ role on the AC.




The panel was moderated by Mireya Solis, Senior Fellow, Center for East Asia Policy Studies. The panelists included:

  • Heather A. Conley, Senior VP for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  • Taisaku Ikeshima, Professor at Waseda University
  • Aki Tonami, Researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies


Conley highlighted the challenges of coordinating the U.S.’s Arctic policy. She noted the paradox that when the AC was welcoming Japan and other new Observer states, it was also restricting Observer activity.


She said the U.S. and Japan are aligned on a strategy regarding the short term impacts of black carbon and methane release, and will work to enhance observing and monitoring networks.


Ikeshima discussed Japan’s Arctic Polices in the context of maritime law and jurisdictional issues.


He referenced the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap as a geographical background for Japan’s interests in the Arctic. It shows most of the Arctic as open ocean, when in reality ice covers the majority of the ocean most of the year. This makes the Northern Sea Route near Russia the most viable route for potential development.


The Northern Sea Route is of the most interest to Japan, said Ikeshima. What the nation seeks to gain is a shipping route with a focus on safety and the environment, control of unregulated fishing in the high seas, scientific observation and surveying, and environmental protection.


Ikeshima then discussed Japan’s contribution through cooperation bilaterally, between each of the eight Arctic nations; and multilaterally, with the Arctic Council, the eight Arctic states collectively, and other non-Arctic states with Arctic interests.


Japan’s Basic Plan on Ocean Policy of 2013 consisted of securing maritime transport, safety navigation, promotion of research and survey activities, conservation of environment, and promotion of international coordination and cooperation.


In conclusion, Ikeshima emphasized Japan’s balanced approach when it comes to its Arctic Policy. Japan has the potential to serve as a “bridge” or “conduit” between the AC and the rest of the world in its ability to monitor and be a messenger for the community and public interest.


Aki Tonami discussed Japan’s Arctic policies from an environmental research and climate change perspective.


She stated that Japan made their Arctic research, which they had been conducting since the 1950s, an institutional study in 1990. This resulted in the establishment of the Arctic Environmental Research Center (AERC), as Japan had been turned down as a member of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). The AERC boosted Japan’s role in scientific research, with its primary purpose to integrate various research that could be comparative to the Arctic.


Tonami referenced the GRENE Arctic Climate Change Research Project of 2011–2015, with the initiative to integrate various scientific researches related to the Arctic. It consists of 39 institutions, and approximately 300 researchers.


The complimentary program, for the years 2015-2019, is the Arctic Challenge for Sustainability Project (ArCS project). It has the same objectives of the GRENE program, but with an added analysis of socio-economic impacts, inspired by a more European approach toward scientific programs in the Polar Regions. Overall, the issue of climate change lies in the center of these scientific research programs.


Tonami said the primary objective of Japan’s climate policy is geared towards protecting and understanding the Arctic environment. The promotion of “green technology” is crucial as its purpose is both diplomatic and nationalistic: it grew into this area at a time when Japan’s economy started to decline, as environmental issues is considered to be an area in which Japan can excel.


Tonami concluded with the three main points of Japan’s Arctic policy:

  1. A strong belief in science and technology.
  2. Climate change/global environmental policy as an area to be a world leader.
  3. The possibility of domestic politics interfering with global Arctic policy.


Panel Discussion


The moderator, Solis, brought up the geopolitics of a spillover in the region, and the fact that AC is not equipped to handle it, which is an issue that should be addressed.


Conley responded she does not subscribe to the idea the Arctic region will be immune to spillover. She stated that when the AC was first created, security wasn’t allowed to be a part of the discussion, because that would imply militarization of the Arctic.


“Currently, we are talking about soft security, that Arctic Council members have created the framework to address soft security issues like emergency response and preparedness, and search and rescue,” said Conley.


Further, Conley said the institutional framework is not in place in the AC to address other security issues. Instead, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum was formed outside of the AC, and is used to address the security issues the AC cannot address. By banning security from the discussion, there is now a search to have a discussion about the topic in order for there to be a return to a code of conduct in the Arctic, she said.


Conley used Russia as an example as the nation continues to conduct military exercises it has conducted in the past, but it is violating codes of conduct because leadership must inform the other countries prior to conducting the exercises.


Ikeshima responded that in regards to Arctic security, the Arctic is not full of “very hard” military security matters, and suggested they should not discusss non-traditional security issues outside the Arctic Council framework.


Ikeshima said people in the region live quite peacefully and security matters are not very important to them. Although discussing any possible security threats is important, it is not the biggest area of concern to those living in the Arctic, he suggested.


Tonami stated that it would be best that the Arctic stays a peaceful place, but it is still important to have a venue to “let the air out” instead of pretending that militarization is not happening.


Solis then shifted the discussion away from geopolitics towards identity.


Conley said the U.S. has a weak Arctic identity. She noted that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has said repeatedly that the Arctic needs to be thought of a national issue and gain full support of the nation to be developed. On its own, Alaska will never get where it needs to be in terms of development. The problem is not alleviated until decisions are made and budgets are formulated to address the Arctic effectively.


Conley went on to discuss the White House’s new coordination mechanism about budgeting, and the announcement by President Obama about building an icebreaker into the budget.


Ikeshima stated Japan’s national identity is strongly linked to its achievements in science.


Tonami said she is interested in the forming of the narratives in terms of bottom up and top down. The top down narrative identity is already there for the Japanese public to be engaged in the Arctic for the global environment and climate change, she said.

An audience member asked what would Japan like to see in terms of scientific agreement within the AC?


In response, Tonami stated that Japan is puzzled about what they are expected to do because they are just Observers. They don’t know where they are supposed to be more proactive and where they are supposed to give their opinion. The nation has extensive research on black carbon, but Japanese scientists are not sure if the AC is interested in its scientific resources because, she said, black carbon is not the most pressing topic.


Tonami said Japan wants to find the balance between discovery of new knowledge and contribution to environmental practice. Some European Observers are not eager to attend every working group session possible, while Japan and the United Kingdom attend working group sessions regularly.


Conley concluded the discussion, noting there was much confusion sending diplomats to scientific working groups. When asking Observers what they want, they are still figuring that out, because strategies like this are still important, she said. It also helps researchers figure out what they should be focusing on.


Conley said she watched closely the evolution of Japan working towards their Arctic strategy. She highlighted the importance of a formal written strategy so others aren’t left to guess, and government transparency is very important so others know what to anticipate.