Aki Tonami is Researcher, and Stewart Watters is Research Fellow, at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies,
University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Japan’s Arctic Policy: The Sum of Many Parts
Aki Tonami and Stewart Watters
Japan has a long history in polar research and this is acknowledged and encouraged by the Japanese government.
However, the Japanese government has not created a unified, cross-ministerial task force operating within a unified
strategy. This stems from the particular characteristics of Japanese government administration, where ministerial
horizontal cooperation is rare, and where business and industry interests often play a critical role. Japanese business has
not applied sufficient pressure for the government to create a central strategy as they have concluded that benefits from
developing the NSR are too fragile to gain significant financial or logistics advantages, compared with existing routes.
Japan views it as critical to engage in international research and development in cooperation with littoral states, as
Japan does not have the legal title to access natural resources in the Arctic region. The views of the shipping industry
may shift over time, and the Japanese government’s attitude to energy security may shift due to the nuclear accident in
2011. From this perspective, the overarching ambition of Japan’s Arctic policy is to plant seeds in order to secure
interests in the future.
Japan has been one of few non-Western states to conduct polar research, doing so since 1957, and
mainly focusing on Antarctica. In 1990, Japan formally joined the Arctic research community by
becoming a member of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) as a non-Arctic state.
The establishment of the Centre for Arctic Research under the National Institute of Polar Research
(NIPR) complemented this. The Centre maintains two observatories on Svalbard, Norway, making
Japan one of the thirteen countries that have observatories on Svalbard.
In July 2009
government officially submitted an application for Permanent Observer status to the Arctic Council.
Since then, a number of policies related to the Arctic have been implemented.
At present Japan does not appear to have a central strategy on the Arctic. It is therefore helpful to
review events and activities related to the Arctic in a chronological order to understand the actual
Japanese Arctic policy. In doing so, it is essential to be mindful of the characteristics of the Japanese