Pinterest WhatsApp

On 31 October, 2023, Japan imposed a collection of asset freezes on individuals and entities related to or supporting Hamas. The sanctions came after a surprise attack on Israel by Hamas on 7 October. Hamas launched thousands of rockets into Israel while also crossing the border and massacring Israeli civilians. It is estimated that 1,400 Israeli nationals and foreigners were killed in the attacks. In the following days, while Hamas continued its attacks, Israel scrambled to mobilize its military to counter the threat posed by Hamas in Gaza. Israel began its counteroffensive with a barrage of airstrikes, followed by a ground invasion of Gaza which has lasted for over six months. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Japan joined the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union to sanction Hamas, eliminating pathways through which the group had laundered money to fund weapons and other supplies. However, what makes Japan’s sanctions unique is that they have almost no tangible effect: it is unlikely that Japan is in the possession of any assets held by the individuals placed on its sanctions list. Japan’s actions thus beg the question: why impose sanctions if they are unlikely to have any tangible effect?

Sanctions serve uses for the Japanese government that are non-coercive. Most scholars conceptualize sanctions as a tool used by governments to coerce a target. However, a small-but-growing group of scholars argues that governments also use sanctions as symbolic tools, both at home and abroad. For instance, sanctions can be used by governments to demonstrate to domestic populations that they are ‘doing something’ to address an issue – such as war or terrorism that has inflicted significant suffering on civilians – without much political will. Passing a bill freezing the assets of a set group of people is far less laborious than organizing foreign aid, or sending weapons, for instance. On the other hand, governments use economic sanctions to demonstrate their allegiance to a group of states or international norm. Because sanctions work best when applied by a greater number of actors, particularly when actors coordinate their sanctions legislation, states can demonstrate their allegiance to a set of states or norm by joining international sanctions regimes. It is likely that Japan seeks to use its sanctions to accomplish the latter objective: demonstrating its allegiance to the West through the punishment of Hamas’ use of terrorism.

Japan stands to benefit from demonstrating its allegiance to the West. Firstly, Japan has historically taken a relatively neutral stance toward Israel and Palestine. This foreign policy remains in place, as was evidenced by Japan’s refusal to vote on a United Nations resolution condemning the war in Gaza in late October, and its continued support for Palestinian statehood. Accordingly, Japan may be attempting to use sanctions to counterbalance perceived support for Palestine with punitive measures on Hamas. Likewise, Japan has a broader geopolitical interest in maintaining the support of the West to hedge against the rise of China as a regional hegemon. In 2021, in response to China’s rising annual military expenditure – which is more than four times larger than Japan’s – Japan announced a historical increase in its military expenditure to 2% of its GDP. Japan is concerned about the implications of China’s potential invasion of Taiwan, and seeks to maintain its historical allegiance to Taiwan and the United States. Hence, by imposing sanctions, Japan seeks to ensure that the United States is aware that Japan shares the same norms and values.

Unsurprisingly, the sanctions on Gaza are not the first time that Japan has imposed signaling sanctions. In the wake of the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, Japan was quick to match western sanctions on Russia, despite the knowledge that sanctions would have little to no effect on the Russian economy. Richard Connolly documents the Japanese sanctions logic in detail by suggesting that “participation in the sanctions regime was a signal aimed not so much at Russia as at the United States and the EU.” He demonstrates that countries like Iceland and Albania employed similar logics in their Russia sanctions policy.

As such, while Japanese sanctions are likely to have little to no material effect on Hamas, Japan still expects for them to have an effect on its alliances. Through maintaining and improving Japan’s relationship with the West, sanctions enable Japan to act as a neutral party maneuvering the diplomatic stage in the wake of Russia’s invasion, while reinforcing Japan’s relationship with the West in an effort to counterbalance the rise of China. Japan’s sanctions provide an excellent example of signaling sanctions and demonstrate the value of sanctions used for non-coercive purposes. Japanese sanctions will likely have no effect on the course of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the sanctions will be successful in achieving Japan’s foreign policy goals.

Note: This article reflects the views of the author and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford. 



Previous post

Finger-Pointing Across the Channel: EU as 'Other' in UK Government’s Post-Brexit Discourse

Next post

Can Mexicans predict the presidential election in June?