Facts & Figures

AC Observer: 2013
Active Polar
Icebreakers: 1

Japan’s contemporary ventures in the Arctic began in 1990 when the Arctic Environment Research Center was created. Shortly thereafter, the National Institute of Polar Research established a Japanese research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Norway to pursue work in atmospheric physics, glaciology, meteorology, oceanography, and terrestrial biology. In the 1990s, Japan was invited to participate in the International Arctic Science Committee and the founding of the International Northern Sea Route Program, a six-year project between Japan, Norway, and Russia to study the viability of Arctic shipping lanes. Today, the program has become the Japan Northern Sea Route Program and is still dedicated to Arctic shipping research.

In 2009 Japan applied for observer status at the Arctic Council. To buttress its application, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs established an Arctic Task Force within the Ocean Division “in order to make a cross-sectorial approach towards foreign policy on the Arctic including the aspect of International Law.” Japan was awarded permanent observer status in 2013, the same year it adopted the Basic Plan on Ocean Policy. The Plan lays out Japan’s priority areas in the Arctic: international cooperation and trans-Arctic shipping. In 2013, Japan established the Liaison Conference of Relevant Ministers and Agencies for Arctic Issues, which has held a total of 10 meetings to share information and draft Japan’s Arctic policy.

As a maritime nation, Japan’s interest in the Arctic largely stems from its interest in the promotion and usage of Arctic shipping lanes. Since the 1990s, there has been a particular interest in the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which connects Japan to Europe via the Russian Arctic. The first freighter to sail from Europe to Japan via the route completed its voyage in 2012. In 2013, Norway sent two shipments of oil products to Japan using the NSR, saving distance, time, and money. While the NSR is perceived to be important for its ability to connect Japanese goods to western markets through a quicker, cheaper, and safer maritime route, Japan also has other economic interests in the circumpolar north.

Japan has few domestic natural resources, forcing it to import the vast majority of its energy and other raw materials. Where once nuclear energy powered one third of the country, energy policy reform in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima Crisis has redcued nuclear power to just two percent of national energy production. Instead, Consequently, Japan now relies heavily on liquid natural gas (LNG) imports. In an attempt to diversify the sources of its energy imports, Japan has been eyeing Arctic LNG from both Europe and North America. In 2012, Japan received its first shipment of LNG through the Arctic from Norway’s Snohvit LNG project in Hammerfest. Japan also has several joint projects in the Arctic for oil and gas exploration and production. In 2013, Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) was awarded the right to develop an oil field off the coast of Greenland. It has since teamed up with Mitsui Oil, Inpex Jx, and GreenPeX to explore two blocks of 5,000 square kilometers. Japan also has joint projects with Chevron and Shell.

In 2012, JOGMEC collaborated with ConocoPhillips and the US Department of Energy to conduct tests on how to safely recover methane hydrate energy resources in the Arctic to provide new supplies of clean-burning natural gas. The tests were successful and large volumes of raw data from the tests have been evaluated by the Department of Energy. The US and Japan have committed to using Arctic gas hydrate research opportunities to analyze the potential for gas hydrate production in deep-water marine settings across the globe. Another test of methane hydrates on North Slope for 2017 is being discussed between JOGMEC and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Beyond resource extraction and transit, Japan also has an economic interest in an undersea cable project that will connect Japan to the UK and North America through the Arctic. The fiber optic cable will cut through the Northwest Passage and transmit data between Japan and the United Kingdom in 154 milliseconds, 24 milliseconds less than today’s speediest digital connection.

Japan’s first official document on Arctic initiatives took the form of a Basic Plan on Ocean Policy, adopted in 2013. It outlined three focus areas to be pursued strategically and comprehensively: (1) observation of and research on the Arctic from a global perspective; (2) international cooperation on the Arctic; and (3) examination of the feasibility of the Northern Sea Route.

Japan released its official Arctic Policy in October 2015 as a follow-up to this document with more specific measures and defined policy. Its aim is to position Japan as an important player in the Arctic that proactively contributes to peace in the region. It focuses on strategic initiatives in diplomacy, national security, environment, transportation, resource development, information and communications, science, and technology. It sets out a number of broad actions the country intends to take in the years to come, including: emphasizing respect for the rule of law, making full use of Japan’s strength in science and technology to address climate change, exploring economic opportunities for arctic shipping, and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples.

Japan intends to complete their list of broad actions through three specific initiatives that focus on a particular type of Arctic diplomatic engagement. Each of these initiatives is detailed at length in their policy document, complete with actionable items and steps to achieving them. Japan’s Arctic initiatives include (1) Research and Development; (2) International Cooperation; and (3) Sustainable Use.

The policy was created by the civil service, politicians, think tanks, independent agencies, and business interests—and is ultimately reflective of their diverse set of interests. Many entities within the government were also involved in the creation of the policy, including the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Land Infrastructure, Transport, Tourism, Education, Culture, Sports, Science, Technology, and Defense.

Beyond its official Arctic Policy, Japan is deeply engaged in international and intergovernmental cooperation in the high north. As an Arctic Council observer state since 2013 and an active member in a number of Arctic organizations such as the International Arctic Science Committee, Japan appointed Masuo Nishibayashi as Ambassador to the Arctic in March 2013. Japan also actively engages in international cooperation through scientific research on the Arctic and Arctic climate change. Of particular interest to Japan are the effects of Arctic climate changes on extreme weather events in Japan. Bilaterally, Japan actively engages with all Arctic states, although ties with Russia, the United States, and Norway are strongest.

Ultimately Japan is interested in the Arctic for its energy resources and shipping routes, but has shown a commitment to regional diplomacy and active political engagement in the region.