A cabinet with only tenuous public support is staring down a dire situation. Following years of consistent and stable economic growth, a looming energy crisis sparked by a violent war is shaking confidence in a new government. The head of state is being forced to balance the needs of an ambitious new security strategy, controversial re-activation of the country’s nuclear energy program. The year is 1973, and Tokyo is in crisis.
One can be forgiven for seeing Europe in this description. Indeed, Europe is facing the consequences of an increasingly unsustainable choice: simultaneous security alignment with the United States and economic intertwining with authoritarian regimes in Russia and China. Nowhere is this clearer than on energy, where European states had to scramble to secure alternative sources of natural gas and oil to avoid a severe power crunch this past winter.
Yet, this condition is old hat in Tokyo, which has long grappled with challenges surrounding energy security in the face of great power competition. Indeed, energy security is another in series of challenges that have moved from being described as uniquely “Japanese” to fast becoming the norm.
Japan and Energy Security
Tokyo is long familiar with profound energy insecurity. Japan is highly dependent on imported fossil fuels (primarily LNG), with around 85-90% of total energy derived from such sources. This vulnerability has been exacerbated during periods of a weakening Yen, forcing Japanese businesses and consumers to pay a higher price for imported energy, leading to an inflationary price cycle.
Of course, energy insecurity isn’t exclusive to Japan. Nevertheless, resource-scarce Japan is particularly vulnerable to energy shocks compared to other industrialized nations. For example, the 1973 Oil Crisis, while deeply concerning for the United States and Europe, is today cited for its comparatively devastating impacts on the Japanese economy, and frequently blamed for catalyzing Japan’s late 20th century economic slowdown.
In response to this vulnerability, post-Cold War Tokyo has dealt with its energy security through a three-pronged strategy of fostering close relations with a diverse set of energy exporters, maintaining a domestic nuclear capacity, and prioritizing cuts in demand amongst Japanese consumers and businesses. While these policies have had a mixed record, they have provided Tokyo with a modest level of energy flexibility.
Lesson 1 – Geopolitical Alignment
The first lesson other states can learn from Japan’s experience is that, far from limiting a state’s strategic options, clear alignment with one superpower can enable greater control over energy supply. With the security backing of the United States, Japan has successfully and simultaneously forged relations with seemingly unlikely states to form energy partnerships. To be sure, such relationships do not allow Japan to hold significant leverage in its ties with energy partners, leaving certain strategic options off Tokyo’s table. Nevertheless, these relationships are best understood as the actions of a country that, largely secure in its geopolitical positioning vis a vis the United States, felt the strategic confidence to reach out across the typical barriers of that relationship.
This contrasts with other approaches seen in Europe and Asia, where leaders often deepen relations with economic partners based on a perceived need to hedge their geopolitical ties with the United States. India, for example, has chosen to prioritize its long-standing ties with Russia over its fast-growing relations with the United States on the topic of the war in Ukraine. Prior to the war, Europe also parted with its largest security partner to ensure reliable access to Russian energy, best seen in Germany’s policy of “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade). The Japanese model, then, suggests that a more unambiguous alignment with the United States opens new options on energy security that are unapparent to those viewing hedging as a necessary precondition to market access.
Lesson 2 – Economic Security as National Security
The second lesson of Japan’s recent history is that energy security is near-synonymous with, and should be prioritized about as highly as, traditional physical security. The legacy of Imperial Japan’s energy insecurity is far from forgotten in Tokyo. These actions led to Japan losing access to most of its oil imports. This left a lesson: If economic partnerships with unseemly or adversarial states cannot be avoided, the downsides can be mitigated by widespread diversification. This reduces the economic benefits of Japanese purchases to the adversarial state, while ensuring no single exogenous shock will have undue impact on local markets and economic production.
This strategy is not without moral and political hazard. Japan has carefully maintained cordial and productive relations with troublesome regimes, including Iran and Myanmar, in the furtherance of its energy goals. To counter this, strategists in Tokyo would stress that without access to reliable energy flows, Japan would be unable to project any meaningful power overseas, ceding influence to authoritarian states like China who lack any such scruples. Seemingly, this lesson is likely to be repeated in Europe, as the E.U. is reaching out to its own set of troubled regimes, from Azerbaijan to Qatar, to plug its own energy holes. Whether in Tokyo or Brussels, the benefits of such diversified relations must be measured against the risk of overexposure to these economies if, as was the case following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Japan and the EU may once again need to turn to economic countermeasures as a response.
Lesson 3 – Nuclear power remains essential
No government has a more difficult and complex relationship with nuclear technology than Japan’s, the only country to experience the horrors of nuclear weapons and one of the few to experience a true nuclear energy disaster. Yet, a hard lesson-learned for Japan throughout the past decade of energy insecurity is the essential nature of its domestic nuclear energy program. Despite a strong domestic constituency opposed to the use of nuclear energy, the Abe, Suga, and Kishida administrations all pushed forward the restarting of Japan’s nuclear energy program. This has given Japan some breathing room since the Ukraine War’s disruption to global energy flows, and giving Japan a path forward to continue moving towards a cleaner and more carbon-neutral power infrastructure.
Indeed, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, public support in Japan for reembracing nuclear power has remarkably increased, moving from around 60% disapproval in 2013 to 47% disapproval in 2022. This shift of public consensus is likely also the result of considerations around the carbon impact of non-nuclear energy sources, and concerns over energy costs. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable turning point from the period after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, where a clear majority of Japanese citizens supported a permanent step away from any nuclear power in the country’s energy mix.
While Europe managed to escape some of its more dire predictions of energy shortages and blackouts this past winter, the threat of a power crunch caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains. This is leaving governments across the world still scrambling to secure reliable sources of energy, enriching some fortunate energy exporters. These import-dependent countries should look to Japan’s experiences since the 1970s for lessons learned, as Tokyo has exercised a unique model of energy politics to reliably power its cities and high-tech economy despite headwinds. To be sure, Japan’s model does not offer a perfect method of acquiring reliable energy, nor is it without several moral and diplomatic hazards. Yet, in the messy politics of energy security, Japan’s choices and lessons are representative of a state on the front lines of the world’s energy politics. At the very least, Tokyo offers a model of best (and not-so-best) practices for countries facing a renewed sense of energy insecurity to follow.
Ryan Ashley is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force with extensive operational experience in East Asia and Japan and a PhD. student at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs focusing on Japanese security relations with Southeast Asia. He is also a lecturer with the Air Force Special Operations School, where he teaches courses on Japanese politics, culture, and security. The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.