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The backstory: Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the US and the EU have put a lot of sanctions on Russia. A few examples include removing the country’s banks from the SWIFT system (making it hard for the country to do global business), bans on imports like Russian coal, price caps on Russian oil, bans on exports of goods like aircraft and tech to Russia and more. The idea is to hit it where it hurts – the wallet – and avoid helping finance the war. And Japan, being a top ally of the US, was like, "We're in too!" So last April, Japan also banned some stuff from Russia, like logs and wood chips.
But get this – Russia had already stopped exporting those goods to Japan, calling it one of the "unfriendly" countries last March. So basically, Japan’s ban was seen as more of a show of support for the US rather than a real attempt at hitting Russia’s pockets. In fact, the ban didn't include sawn timber, which makes up a huge chunk (about 90%) of Japan's wood trade.
More recently: In December, the US and its European allies agreed to put a US$60 a barrel price cap on Russian oil, but Japan didn't jump on board, saying it needed access to Russian oil to keep its energy security. So, it was given a temporary exception, mainly because the country’s imports are pretty small and wouldn’t have much of an overall effect on the widespread sanctions.
But, all in all, Japan's wobbly approach toward Russian sanctions has caused some backlash. Some say that it’s indirectly supporting the war by continuing to import things like Russian seafood, timber and energy. One environmental group even accused Japan of purchasing "blood timber" worth over US$410 million.
The development: Now, Canada has beef with Japan over some fishy business. According to Japan's Finance Ministry, the country bought a massive US$1.15 billion worth of seafood from Russia in 2022, with snow crabs as its go-to. This beat a previous pre-war record from 2018. So some politicians have pressured the Canadian government to urge Japan to stop importing Russian crab and show solidarity with the rest of the G7 countries.
Canada’s trade minister said they did bring the issue up with Japan, offering Canada’s own “sustainable, ethical and premium snowcrab” as an alternative to imports from Russia. But, it’s worth mentioning that price may be a major factor for Japan’s decisions. The country is dealing with the worst inflation in decades and has the second-highest debt-to-GDP ration in the world. On top of that, when it comes to the Sakhalin-2 project, which is what Japan got its energy exception for, the government and many Japanese companies have invested in that project. So, not only are they wanting to protect their investments, they also want to avoid a rival like China coming in and taking over if they pull out.
So, now that the G7 summit is coming up next month in Hiroshima, with Japan as its chair, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Especially since one of the major talking points will be unified strategy on supporting Ukraine and sanctioning Russia.
“We are thankful for Japan’s continued efforts to work with allies to isolate Russia, and have asked Japan to consider Canada’s sustainable, ethical and premium snow crab to replace its current supply of Russian products,” said Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng.
“We absolutely will not allow Russia’s outrageous act, and we are imposing strict sanctions on Russia in order to stop Russia’s invasion as soon as possible,” said chief government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno.
"For a country heavily dependent on energy imports, it's a very difficult decision. But G7 coordination is most important at a time like now. As for the timing of the reduction or stoppage of [Russian] oil imports, we will consider it while gauging the actual situation," said Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last year. "We will take our time to take steps towards a phase-out."
“There is a very limited amount of trade between eastern Russia and Japan and I don’t think it’s divisive enough to cause a problem with Japan’s partners,” said Stephen Nagy, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University. “This is not such a significant amount that it would help to prop up Putin’s war with Ukraine.”