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Japan’s latest sanctions on Russia spark concern among LDP ahead of summer election


Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made the difficult decision to phase out coal imports from Russia and expel Russian diplomats, as he looks to continue to cooperate with Western allies on increasingly harsh sanctions following reports of atrocities against Ukrainians.

But because the measure to ban Russian coal will inevitably affect people’s lives by increasing household costs, ruling coalition officials are voicing concerns ahead of this summer’s Upper House election.

The latest measures are to hold Russia accountable for “cruel, inhumane” acts following its invasion of Ukraine, Kishida said Friday, adding that Russia has committed “war crimes that are absolutely unforgivable.”

The Japanese government has been gradually expanding the scope of its sanctions on Russia since late February, when Russia launched its invasion, but had consistently stopped short of restricting Russian coal imports partly out of concern over a serious economic impact on Japan.

A coal import ban could be “a sanction on Japan, not on Russia,” so energy-related sanctions will be impossible, a source at the Prime Minister’s Office said Monday.

But the atmosphere changed as the United States and European nations began to act quickly, with the European Union announcing a plan to ban coal imports from Russia.

After the leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy nations, which includes Japan, issued a statement Thursday vowing to expedite their plans to reduce reliance on Russia for energy, including “phasing out and banning Russian coal imports,” the source at the Prime Minister’s Office flip-flopped, saying that “Japan now has no choice but to keep in step with” its G7 partners.

Still, the government is worried that coal import restrictions will badly affect the Japanese economy, which has already been seriously hurt by the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Japan depends on Russia for 13% of coal used for power generation and 8% for coal for steel-making.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Friday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Friday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

A government official said that a competition for coal from other countries is expected.

“Power outages could occur across Japan unless a transitional period is set,” another official warned.

Some are concerned that Japan could be pressured to withdraw from the Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 natural gas and oil projects off the Russian Far East island.

At Friday’s news conference, Kishida did not mention the specific timing of Japan’s ban on coal imports from Russia. On the possibility the country could ban natural gas and oil imports, the prime minister said, “We will lower our reliance on Russia for energy as a whole.”

The potential impact on the economy as the ruling bloc concerned ahead of the Upper House poll.

“I expect the public to understand (the coal import ban) if we explain that the measure is for the sake of Ukraine,” a senior Liberal Democratic Party official said. But the official added that frustration could grow if the impact from the measure persists.

An official of Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the LDP, stressed the need for the government to compile a supplementary budget before the Upper House election, saying, “The administration would come under fire unless it takes sufficient measures (to mitigate the negative impact).”

Japan also decided to expel Russian Embassy diplomats.

Many government officials had been cautious about such a move, which could prompt Moscow to take the same measure against Japan. Such retaliation by Moscow would have an impact on the protection of Japanese citizens in Russia, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

An LDP member who has served as a Cabinet minister said, “It’s not wise for Japan to let its diplomatic channels with Russia shrink.”

Nevertheless, Tokyo followed in the footsteps of European countries that expelled Russian diplomats and some LDP lawmakers lauded the tough measures against Russia.

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