TOKYO — Japan’s swift move to enact sanctions against Russia on Wednesday might have seemed a foregone conclusion given its close alliance with the United States.
But eight years ago, when Russia annexed Crimea, Japan was reluctant to impose sanctions as it sought to thread a needle between showing solidarity with Washington and maintaining a diplomatic opening with Moscow to negotiate the status of disputed islands.
Much has changed since then.
Japan’s prime minister in 2014, Shinzo Abe, was keen to foster a relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in the hopes of securing a return of what Russia calls the southern Kurile Islands and Japan calls the Northern Territories. The dispute over the islands has prevented Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty officially ending World War II.
Although Mr. Abe did eventually announce sanctions over Crimea, he kept open an invitation for a visit to Japan by Mr. Putin. In total, during Mr. Abe’s nearly eight years in office, he met with Mr. Putin at least 18 times, but failed to make any substantial progress on the status of the contested islands.
Some politicians in Japan worry “that because Japan has the Northern Territories issue with Russia, Japan should not make Putin angry,” said Yoshiki Mine, a former Japanese diplomat and president of Institute for Peaceful Diplomacy, an independent think tank in Tokyo. “That’s outrageous.”
This time around, from the start of the crisis in Ukraine, Japan’s current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has acted in step with the Biden administration, strongly condemning Russia’s actions without hesitation.
On Wednesday he announced sanctions that included a prohibition on Russia issuing new sovereign bonds in Japanese markets, banning any trade with the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine that Moscow recognized on Monday, and freezing the assets of representatives of those republics and barring them from receiving visas.
On Thursday, in response to questions in the Upper House of Japan’s Parliament, Mr. Kishida said he would consider further measures as events unfolded.
“The Kishida government has signaled in a number of different ways and venues and from different officials that it views this certainly differently than the kind of remarks you were getting from the Abe government back in 2014,” said Tobias Harris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
The clearest change in the last eight years is the continuing rise of China, Japan’s largest and most powerful neighbor. With China’s leader Xi Jinping closely aligning himself with Mr. Putin and China warning Taiwan, a democratically ruled territory that Beijing claims as its own, not to seek independence, Japan is much more aware of the potential reverberations from Russia’s actions closer to home. Taipei is less than 400 miles from Okinawa, the string of islands south of Japan’s main island.
“The need for Japan to show a firm stance is more important than in 2014 as there is the Taiwan issue,” said Mr. Mine. “China is watching how Western countries will respond to Russia’s effort to change the status quo by force.”
Japan’s current sanctions are mostly symbolic, given that Russia has not issued many sovereign bonds in Japan before now, and Japan does not do much trade with the eastern breakaway republic in Ukraine.
Analysts said that Japan had some levers it could still pull, including imposing export controls on semiconductors and closing loopholes on money laundering operations. Mr. Kishida has remained vague about his intentions on semiconductors, but analysts suggest he could be willing to go along with a U.S.-led initiative.
That is “an important sign of the potential impact that Japan could have as part of this international effort,” said Mr. Harris, adding that manufacturers would need government support, “signaling that ‘we are not reluctantly going along with this, but we are committed.’”