This weekend, as the Japanese government dramatically ramped up sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine, the Japanese people responded, too. With the help of Japanese social media influencers and celebrities spreading news about Ukraine and calls for action going viral on social media, Japanese residents have shown up for Ukrainians in droves.
Solidarity with Ukraine could be found in many Asian countries, with symbolic protests in several capitals and Singapore and South Korea joining the sanctions against Russia. People in Myanmar and Hong Kong also recognized the Ukrainians’ struggle as similar to their own fight against oppression.
In Tokyo, Japanese residents stood alongside Ukrainians and Russians in several protests for peace, including one that drew about 2,000 people in the popular district of Shibuya.
In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were devastated by U.S. atomic bombings during World War II, survivors stood in opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent escalation of the nuclear threat, holding signs that read, “No more Hiroshima, Nagasaki.”
Protesters in the western Japanese cities of Nagoya and Kyoto, which are home to many expats, sang the Ukrainian anthem. In Fukushima, the site of the 2011 nuclear meltdown, about 50 people chanted “Stop Putin” and held signs decorated with sunflowers, the Ukrainian national flower.
“With the possibility of a nuclear war, I felt it was necessary to send our voices of protest from an atomic-bombed city,” Erika Abiko, 43, who helped organize the Hiroshima protest, said in an interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK. “I hope that our solidarity will be conveyed to those who are suffering.”
Donations are flooding in, as well. On Friday, the Ukrainian Embassy in Japan tweeted its Japanese bank account number for donations. It has been retweeted and liked more than 432,000 times, with residents giving between 3,000 yen ($25) and 1,000,000 yen ($8,654). Others dropped off envelopes with cash donations at the embassy.
Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani, the chief executive of e-commerce giant Rakuten, donated $8.7 million toward humanitarian aid for Ukrainians, recalling his 2019 visit to Ukraine and meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky. On Monday, Mikitani opened up a donation route through Rakuten.
Japan said Monday it would allow Ukrainian refugees and Russians opposing the invasion into the country and renew visas of Ukrainians in Japan who need to stay. It is joining the West in cutting off Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system, which could hobble Russia’s ability to do business outside of its borders. Japan also will freeze the assets of Belarusian individuals, including President Alexander Lukashenko and will place restrictions on the central Russian bank.
Japan’s response to the Russian invasion stands in sharp contrast to 2014, when the government imposed symbolic sanctions in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. At the time, the public’s response was muted, with a feeling that Crimea was a distant issue that did not affect the Japanese, said James Brown, an expert in Russian-Japanese relations at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo.
But this time, the Japanese government and public are especially mindful of the implications of Russia’s actions in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in the face of an assertive China, Brown said.
“There is a general fear that, if Russia is allowed to conquer Ukraine by force, it could embolden China to seize the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan,” Brown said. “Separately, the nuclear issue creates a bond between the Japanese and Ukrainian people. This is because they are both the victims of the world’s most serious civilian nuclear disasters.”
Pro-Ukrainian sentiments echoed throughout Asian cities, in antiwar protests and iconic landmarks that were lit up in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
In Seoul, protesters representing 400 South Korean civic groups gathered in front of the Russian Embassy to call on Russia to stop all military actions against Ukraine. They urged the South Korean government to take “every possible diplomatic action” for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Protesters staged a “die-in” by lying on the ground to symbolize victims of the war, and several landmarks were lit up in blue and yellow.
Solidarity for Ukraine also came from remote corners of Myanmar, where demonstrators have held up the European country’s flag alongside that of rebel ethnic armed groups fighting Myanmar’s Russian-backed military.
What they lack in size they more than make up for in bravery and symbolism. Demonstrations in Myanmar, the far south of Dawei and the north in Kachin, in solidarity with Ukraine. (Surely the first time the KIA flag has flown next to that of Ukraine’s.) pic.twitter.com/45rguhCIRN
— Timothy McLaughlin (@TMclaughlin3) February 27, 2022
The rebel National Unity Government of Myanmar, made up of those aligned with the former democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has also stood in solidarity with Ukraine, condemning the invasion “in the strongest terms.”
Many of those resisting the Myanmar military coup saw parallels between Ukraine and their own situation. Russia has also been among the staunchest supporters of Myanmar’s military and its commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, continuing to fulfill arms orders and train the military pilots carrying out attacks against civilians.
The Myanmar junta has, in turn, praised Russia as it invaded Ukraine.
The David and Goliath narrative — of a small place committed to the ideals of democracy, standing up against an authoritarian superpower — is one that also has resonance among pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. During the 2019 pro-democracy protests there, front-line demonstrators borrowed tactics seen during Ukraine’s anti-government Maidan protests in 2014-15. The documentary “Winter on Fire” was widely watched during that time.
Many Hong Kong pro-democracy leaders were later driven into exile during a crackdown encouraged by Beijing, and from Australia, Germany and London, they called for Hong Kongers to support Ukraine. One exiled activist, Finn Lau, said last week he would be giving half of his January donations for the Hong Kong cause to Ukraine instead.
Prominent London-based Hong Kong activist Nathan Law said in a tweet that Hong Kong’s people “understand how it feels to have a threatening neighbor and people’s will being suppressed by authoritarian power.”
On Friday and Saturday, dozens of expats and residents gathered outside the Moscow-Taipei Coordination Commission on Economic and Cultural Cooperation, Russia’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, to protest the incursions into Ukraine. Protesters held sunflowers, as well — the flower is also a symbol of a student protest in Taiwan 2014 — and posters that read: “We’re all Ukrainians today.”
“When something terrible happens, wherever it is, as human beings, we should speak out,” said Yang Pinghung, 26, standing at the protest in Taipei on Friday, holding a sign that read, “No war.”
Inuma reported from Tokyo and Mahtani from Hong Kong. Lily Kuo and Vic Chiang in Taipei, Min Joo Kim in Seoul, and Reis Thebault in Washington contributed to this report.