Russian-Japanese Rapprochement through the Lenses of IR Theory


The article analyzes the reasons behind the Russian-Japanese rapprochement in the mid-2010s. The Russia-Japan dyad is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon in which geopolitics, historical memory, mutual perceptions, domestic politics and personality factors are intertwined. Therefore, analysis of Russian-Japanese relations cannot be fulfilled on the basis of a single theoretical approach. To grasp it the authors rely on combination of neoclassical realism and constructivism, augmented by the application of Robert Putnam’s two-level games model.

The article comes to the conclusion that, from the perspective of neoclassical realism, Russia-Japan relations have entered a propitious period. The changing balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, with the United States’ positions relatively weakening against the China’s remarkable rise, make it both possible and necessary for Japan to improve relations with Russia. Good-neighborly relations with Moscow will provide Tokyo with greater confidence in an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment. The constructivist analysis produces a much less optimistic picture. For over two centuries Russia-Japan relations accumulated substantial burden of mutual grievances and accusations. To overcome the barriers of distrust and hostility, geopolitical drivers are not sufficient. Bold steps toward each other are needed. These steps should not be only about symbolism, but also about substance such as considerably raising the scale of economic, social and human interactions. The two-level game model, applied to the territorial dispute negotiations, shows that Russia and Japan are now in a more or less equal position, since their chief negotiators, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe, are both strong and popular leaders who are capable of securing domestic ratification of a deal, even if it contains significant concessions. Overall, the prospects for Russia-Japan relations can be assessed with cautious optimism, as a window of opportunity for their improvement has opened.


Russia; Japan; China; the United States; the Asia-Pacific; neoclassical realism; constructivism; two-level


Authors: Dmitry Streltsov, Artem Lukin

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