As the crisis in Ukraine drags on, Japan faces the difficult task of striking a delicate balance between standing by the United States, its main military ally, and maintaining a good relationship with resource-rich Russia.

Observers say Japan must take a clearer stance against any violations of territorial sovereignty while at the same time continue to show Russia that it hopes to build a close relationship. Any signs of wavering on the issue could have a negative impact on ongoing territorial disputes, including over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, they said.

Japan imposed visa bans on 23 people Tuesday, as it followed the United States and European Union in announcing expanded sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

“This is a difficult diplomatic issue. But Japan needs to send a clear signal (to the international community) that it will not approve of a violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty,” said Shigeki Hakamada, a professor of Russian affairs at Niigata University.

“Japan has a dilemma,” he added: It not only wants to act in sync with the U.S. — it also wants to build good relations with Russia when ties with other neighboring countries such as China and South Korea have been strained.

“Japan is right in trying to build close ties with Moscow as its long-term policy. But it needs to take a clear stance over an individual issue,” Hakamada said. “After all, Japan is the only country among the Group of Seven major industrialized nations that can truly understand the pain of Ukraine because its territorial integrity has been violated by Russia.”

The Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the Russian nationals on its sanctions list — whom it did not identify but who were reported by media to include government officials — were suspected of violating “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory.”

Moscow vowed Tuesday to retaliate over the visa ban, with Russia’s Foreign Ministry saying that the decision was “met with disappointment in Moscow” and would “not be left without a response.”

“Attempts by Japan to put pressure on Russia will in no way help de-escalate tensions around Ukraine,” the statement added.

Observers, however, said that the visa bans will do no real damage to Russia, as most of the officials have no interest in visiting Japan anyway.

“The visa bans are only symbolic sanctions. They will do no substantial damage to Moscow,” Hakamada said, adding that Russia could impose sanctions on Japan, but these, too, would be symbolic.

In an interview with Russia’s Tass news agency, former Ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov also said that Tokyo’s sanctions appeared more symbolic and moderate than U.S. and EU moves, adding that they are aimed at maintaining strategic relations, political dialogue and economic cooperation with Russia.

While assessing Russia’s countermeasures against Japan’s new sanctions, Hakamada said that Tokyo needs to decide other ways to send a clearer message to Moscow.

Meanwhile, Putin’s expected visit to Tokyo this fall could be canceled after Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida postponed a planned trip to Moscow in April — a move apparently taken to avoid damaging the Japan-U.S. alliance ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Tokyo visit last month, experts said.

Kishida was expected to discuss with his counterpart in Moscow details of Putin’s visit to Tokyo, which Japan saw as a chance to bolster economic ties and restart discussions on stalled territorial disputes over four Russian-held and Japan-claimed islands off Hokkaido.

Putin, however, has no plans to compromise on those territorial disputes, regardless of Japan’s stance on Ukraine, Hakamada said.

Relations between Moscow and Tokyo have been strained for decades because of the status of the four islands. The territorial dispute has hurt the two nations’ trade relations and prevented the signing of a peace treaty formally ending World War II hostilities.

Information from AFP-JIJI, JIJI added

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