On Tuesday, Japan’s prime minister laid a wreath for the dead outside a church in the blasted Ukrainian town of Bucha, while 800km away in Moscow Xi Jinping was treated to an opulent state dinner by Vladimir Putin, underscoring the division in Asia over Russia’s invasion.
The first Japanese leader to visit a country in conflict since the second world war, Kishida toured Bucha, a town that has become synonymous with Russian brutality, and where the mayor has said more than 400 civilians were killed.
“The world was astonished to see innocent civilians in Bucha killed one year ago. I really feel great anger at the atrocity upon visiting that very place here,” Kishida said, after observing a moment of silence and bowing.
“I would like to give condolence to the all victims and the wounded on behalf of the Japanese nationals. Japan will keep aiding Ukraine with the greatest effort to regain peace.”
Ukraine has seen an outpouring of popular support in Japan, amid deepened concern in Tokyo and among the Japanese public about what would happen to Japan if China were to invade Taiwan. Both Russia and China have conducted joint military exercises near Japan’s coasts.
Tokyo has joined the west in imposing sanctions on Moscow. Kishida called Russia’s invasion a “disgrace that undermines the foundations of the international legal order”.
Japan’s national broadsheets all ran with Kishida’s visit as their top story. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper said it “applauded” Kishida for making the visit despite the clear security challenges, adding that Japan should continue to provide non-lethal support to Ukraine “as a peace-loving nation”.
It noted that it was “highly” unusual for a Japanese prime minister to visit a country while it is at war, and speculated that Kishida had concluded that he had no choice but to demonstrate his support for Ukraine with a face-to-face meeting with its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, before Japan hosts the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.
Kenta Izumi, head of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic party of Japan, praised Kishida’s visit – speculation over which had been building for months – but said he should report back to parliament soon, according to the Kyodo news agency.
Ministers normally have to receive parliamentary approval for overseas visits when the legislature is in session, but Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic party said pre-approval was not necessary this time given the security concerns.
Japan’s support for Ukraine has been warmly recognised by Zelenskiy, who posted footage of him greeting Kishida, whom the Ukrainian leader called “a truly powerful defender of the international order and a longtime friend of Ukraine”.
In what appeared to be a response to Kishida’s trip, Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that two of its strategic bombers flew over the Sea of Japan.
The same day, Xi toasted Putin with a glass of wine in the 15th-century Chamber of Facets, one of the most historic ceremonial venues at the Kremlin.
Putin praised the “health of our great friend Xi and the deepening of the Russian-Chinese partnership”, before ending his speech with the phrase ganbei, Chinese for “empty glass”. A state dinner lay ahead, with the pair joined by the heads of Russia’s largest companies.
The state dinner menu featured Karelian trout salad with fresh cucumbers, Kamchatka crab croquette with truffle oil, citrus sherbet, borscht with stewed duck and a choice of halibut or marbled beef steak. There was also raspberry mousse and Divnomorskaya Usad’ba Eastern Slope wine.
The previous day, Xi had been treated to a six-course dinner featuring quail blinis, Siberian salmon, venison in cherry sauce and wine from Russia’s Black Sea coast. He stayed at the five-star Chinese-owned Soluxe Hotel, driving past a series of large billboards dedicated to his visit along the way.
Xi, pushing to be regarded a global peacemaker, has claimed to be a neutral broker in the conflict, and again laid out a 12-point peace proposal, one that does not call for the withdrawal of Russian forces and has already been dismissed by Kyiv and the west as helping only to ratify Moscow’s territorial conquests and give it time to plan a renewed offensive.
The differing paths of Japan and China will be on show again in May, when Kishida hosts a G7 summit in his home town of Hiroshima. Zelenskiy, speaking at a joint briefing with Kishida, said he would join the Hiroshima summit online.
Kishida says the summit should demonstrate a strong will to uphold international order and rule of law in response to the Ukraine war.
Xi himself has personally invited Putin to China, to discuss increasing economic cooperation, something already in evidence since international sanctions hit. Russian-Chinese trade rose by 30% last year to $185bn and is expected to top $200bn this year.
Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan spoke of the “two very different European-Pacific partnerships” that unfolded on Tuesday. Noting the arrest warrant for Putin issued by the international criminal court, he wrote: “Kishida stands with freedom, and Xi stands with a war criminal.”
With Reuters and Associated Press