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Influencing the imagined ‘polar regions’: the politics of Japan's Arctic and Antarctic policies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 October 2017

Aki Tonami
Faculty of Business Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Japan Nordic Institute of Asia Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark (


How does a state that is not a ‘natural’ Arctic or Antarctic state perceive the polar regions, interpret their roles in its foreign policy and translate this into actual polar policy? This paper seeks to answer these questions by comparing the Arctic and Antarctic policies of Japan. The paper shows that Japan's national image of the polar regions as a combined region began before World War II due to its imperial past of joining the race to the Antarctic and the Arctic. However, from a policy point of view, the polar regions for Japan long meant primarily Antarctica. Japan, as a defeated power and a late-comer to the international system established after World War II, takes a liberal position in the governance of Antarctica. Having and maintaining a capability to conduct scientific research in the Antarctic via international decision-making institutions has been considered an important status marker associated with great power identity. Regarding the Arctic, Japan attempts to replicate the general success of its Antarctic policy, backed by tools of science and technological diplomacy, the purpose of which is to revive its domestic economy. Japan's scientific whaling in the Antarctic is primarily a domestic, identity-based political conflict between a nostalgia for Japan's imperial past and its more modern, liberal identity of today.

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