Japan’s Prime Minister Visits Ukraine

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio of Japan made a surprise visit to Kyiv today to show support for Ukraine and reaffirm Japan’s solidarity with the United States and other countries in condemning Russian aggression as the war enters its second year. Kishida traveled to Kyiv by train from Poland after a visit to India and is the last representative of the G7, which Japan chairs this year, to meet with President Zelensky in person. Kishida’s arrival in Kyiv coincides with a state visit to Russia by China’s president Xi Jinping, who expressed support for Russian president Vladimir Putin, signifying a widening divide over the war and the implications for the global order. 

Q1: How did Kishida’s visit come about?

A1: Zelensky invited Kishida to visit Ukraine during a virtual meeting in January, and then called on Japan and the other G7 members for continued support during a virtual session Kishida hosted together with other G7 leaders in February to mark the one-year anniversary of the war. Kishida’s planned visit to India earlier this week for a summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented an opportunity for a stopover, and to keep the visit secret the Japanese government skirted domestic requirements that plans for international travel be made public. Kishida reportedly stopped at a church in Bucha outside of Kyiv to express his condolences to the fallen and is scheduled to meet with Zelensky in Kyiv and then confer with his Polish counterpart on Wednesday before returning to Japan.

Q2: What are the core objectives for the visit?

A2: Kishida reportedly was eager to make the trip not only on behalf of the G7, which will gather in Hiroshima for an annual summit he will host in May, but also to demonstrate Japan’s own determination to support Ukraine and oppose Russia’s attempt to change the status quo by force—a universal principle that Tokyo sees as vital to uphold in the face of Chinese coercion in Asia. Kishida was quick to condemn Russia’s invasion last year and joined the United States and others in imposing sweeping financial sanctions, export controls, and other punitive measures on Russia. Japan has provided more than $7 billion in aid to Ukraine, including nonlethal military equipment and humanitarian assistance, and Kishida could announce additional support for reconstruction during the visit. Kishida is Japan’s first postwar leader to enter a war zone, signaling Japan’s steadfast commitment to defend the global order Russia seeks to upend with apparent support from China as evidenced by Xi’s state visit to Moscow.

Q3: Are there broader strategic implications?

A3: Japan’s Russia strategy traditionally centered on robust diplomacy to pull it away from China and resolve a long-standing territorial dispute, but the invasion of Ukraine necessitated a rapid shift in Japan’s approach—in part due to concern about the lessons Beijing could draw from Moscow’s use of force in Ukraine. Kishida has been a powerful advocate of the view that the international rules-based order is indivisible, and that likeminded states have a stake in upholding challenges to it wherever they occur. Last year Kishida said “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow,” a profound statement on the potential regional implications of the Russian invasion amid persistent concerns about Chinese coercion in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and across the Taiwan Strait. Japan introduced a new defense strategy last December centered on acquiring advanced capabilities to strengthen deterrence, but also seeks to stabilize relations and sustain economic ties with Beijing. The juxtaposition of Kishida’s stop in Kyiv with the Xi-Putin summit reveals the extent to which the delicate balancing act at the heart of Japan’s China strategy will be increasingly difficult to maintain if Xi remains intent on boosting Putin to widen the divide with the West and alter the strategic chessboard in Europe and Asia.

Q4: What does this visit say about Japan’s diplomatic weight?

A4: Kishida’s visit to Kyiv is not just about symbolic support for Ukraine. Japan took the lead in condemning Russian aggression from the start, and Kishida is demonstrating Japan’s commitment to defend the global order. Kishida will surely take advantage of his role as host of the G7 to further support for Ukraine and for the norms and principles that Japan and other like-minded countries uphold.

Christopher Johnstone is senior adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow with the Japan Chair and deputy director for Asia at CSIS.