A Tokyo conference on rebuilding Ukraine held on Monday underscored the vital role that private investment plays in efforts by Japan, a nation unable to provide military assistance under its pacifist Constitution, to show its commitment to supporting the war-torn country.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government announced the relaxation of restrictions on citizens' trips to Ukraine with reconstruction-related purposes, responding to calls from Japanese companies seeking new business opportunities in Eastern Europe.

Experts on Ukrainian affairs say, however, that the easing of travel advisory represents just the initial step for Japan as it tries to strike a delicate balance between facilitating Japanese companies' business in the former Soviet state and securing their safety.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (back, C) delivers remarks during a bilateral meeting to promote Ukraine's economic growth and reconstruction in Tokyo on Feb. 19, 2024. (Pool photo) (Kyodo) ==Kyodo


With Russia showing no sign of ending its invasion of Ukraine, Tokyo will need to stay committed to supporting Japanese firms wanting to operate there during the planning phase, the experts say.

The Japan-Ukraine Conference for Promotion of Economic Growth and Reconstruction came at a time when global concerns grow over the sustainability of Western military support for Ukraine.

Kishida, at his opening address for the conference, called on the global community to solidify its unity in backing Ukraine, while pledging to work together with the private sector toward the country's long-term economic reconstruction.

"The war in Ukraine is currently still going on and the situation is not easy, but the promotion of economic reconstruction is investment for the future, not only of Ukraine but also of Japan and the world," Kishida said.

According to the World Bank's latest estimate, reconstruction and recovery in Ukraine will cost $486 billion over the next decade, a sum seemingly beyond the scope of public funding alone. Therefore, the involvement of private sectors from around the world is indispensable to address this monumental task.

Boosting reconstruction is one of the areas on which Tokyo puts the greatest emphasis in its support for Kyiv, as its provision of military assistance is practically banned under its war-renouncing Constitution.

"Russia and Ukraine are unlikely to enter cease-fire talks for the time being, so it is important for Japanese companies to invest and support the Ukrainian economy now, instead of waiting until the war's end," a Japanese government official said.

Yoshihiko Okabe, a professor at Kobe Gakuin University, said hosting a bilateral gathering with Ukraine is "unique even from the worldwide viewpoint," and demonstrates Tokyo's commitment to long-term support for Kyiv.

The two nations have held meetings since the launch of a two-way economic dialogue framework in 2008 and forged relations at the public and private levels, which laid the groundwork for the latest reconstruction talks, Okabe, an expert in Ukrainian studies, said.

For Japanese firms interested in doing business related to the reconstruction of Ukraine, the government's review of its restrictions on travel there, announced at the Monday conference, was what they had hoped for.

Even shortly before Moscow launched its full-scale war on Feb. 24, 2022, the Japanese Foreign Ministry has issued the highest Level 4 travel advisory for the whole of Ukraine, urging all Japanese nationals to evacuate and not to travel there.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said during the conference that the ministry will uphold the advisory but effectively allow business people to travel to Kyiv if they have "compelling reasons" to visit there and take adequate safety measures.

According to an official of the influential Japan Business Federation, known as Keidanren, many companies had demanded the relaxation as they have internal rules banning their employees' trips to places under the Level 4 advisory.

Japan's travel advisory for Ukraine was not particularly strict compared with those of other governments, but the nation's "safety-first culture" has made firms wary of tapping Ukrainian markets in the middle of the Russian invasion, Okabe said.

Easing the travel restrictions was "unavoidable" as long as Japan continues to aid Ukraine's reconstruction work "because companies cannot do anything without visiting the sites directly," Okabe said.

Some corporate officials have complained of Japan lagging behind other nations, such as South Korea, in carrying on with business in Ukraine, the Keidanren official said.

A Foreign Ministry official stressed that the relaxation of the travel restrictions for businesses does not mean that Ukraine has become safer, saying it was "nothing less than a political decision" after coming under pressure from business circles.

Taisuke Abiru, senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based nonprofit Sasakawa Peace Foundation, said the government should continue considering how to further review the travel warning "by taking companies' voices into account."

The experts also underscored the need for gaining a deeper public understanding of the government's long-term support for Ukraine.

Abiru, well-versed in Eurasian geopolitics and Russian foreign and security policies, said the result of the U.S. presidential election scheduled for November could change the landscape where Japanese lawmakers and public have generally been supportive of assisting Ukraine.

Fears are mounting in Japan and European nations that Washington might scale down or cut its financial and military aid for Ukraine if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House.

"Even if Mr. Trump wins, backing Ukraine's recovery will never become unnecessary, so Japan should maintain its position of focusing on it" and explain its importance to the public, Abiru said.

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