TOKYO -- Increased tensions over Ukraine are no longer someone else's problem for the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan has found itself in the middle of the fierce tug-of-war between the U.S. and Russia.
According to a Japanese government official, Washington said it is considering imposing economic sanctions on Russia and that it wants Tokyo to join in.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on March 2 indicated that the U.S. would weigh possible economic sanctions against Russia, which may include freezing overseas assets and partially suspending visa issuance. But the U.S. has not put all its cards on the table yet.
A Japanese national security official said, "We do not know the details of the planned sanctions yet. But if the U.S. and Europe cooperate, Japan will be forced to conform to them." The scenario is a problem for Abe, who is seeking to deepen relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and settle the long-standing dispute over the so-called Northern Territories, four islands north of Hokkaido that Soviet forces occupied in the closing days of World War II.
Abe can work along with the U.S. and Europe, but does not want to take a stern approach toward Russia to the extent of rupturing Japan-Russia relations. In fact, he is said to have mentioned such an intention to those close to him, and Japan is acting accordingly.
A joint statement condemning Russian's actions by leaders of the G-7 nations -- the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Canada -- was compiled by the U.S. and released on March 3. When shown a draft of the statement, Japanese officials asked to make modifications, including additional wording calling for all sides to exercise restraint. "Expressions were weakened so as not to overly provoke Russia," said a Japanese government official.
Germany, which depends on Russia for energy, is also taking a different approach from the U.S. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is insisting on dialogue with Russia, keeping a distance from U.S.'s hard-line stance.
But if Russia launches major military action in Ukraine, it will be more difficult for Japan and Germany to maintain their relations with Russia. Some conservative Republicans in the U.S. have even said that Japan should avoid being deeply involved in the Putin administration.
Amid these circumstances, Putin has been working to prevent Japan from giving in to the U.S. pressure. His efforts date back to the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in early February. There is a little-known story about Abe's attendance at the ceremonies. In late January, Japanese government officials were seeking ways for Abe to attend the ceremonies. But they were facing difficulties because he was unlikely to make it to the ceremonies no matter how much he hurried, due to scheduling conflicts with the ordinary session of the Diet.
But Putin did not lose hope, according to sources close to the Japanese and Russian governments. He arranged permission for the Japanese government aircraft to pass through Kazakhstan's territorial airspace so that it could take the shortest possible route from Tokyo to Sochi. His preparations paid off and Abe arrived at the venue only about 10 minutes before the ceremonies began.
The following day, Putin had a luncheon meeting with Abe, treating him to three different kinds of the finest caviar and premium vodka. A Japanese expert in Russian affairs said, "Putin may have already envisaged taking tough measures against Ukraine back then. So he wined and dined Abe in a bid to prepare for a split between Washington and Tokyo."
Since then, questions have grown about how Japan should address the confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.
There is talk in the Abe government that Tokyo wants to avoid a situation where China and Russia join hands via their shared territorial and historical issues and increase pressure on Japan. But the government is also worried that if the unity between Japan and the U.S. is impaired due to ties with Russia, it could result in a toughening of China's hard-line policy toward Japan.
Abe is considering sending Shotaro Yachi, head of the secretariat of Japan's new National Security Council, to Russia within this month. Some say that Putin, who wants to disrupt the relationship among Japan, the U.S. and Europe, will meet him in person.