Japan to ban Russian coal imports in surprise policy change

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Isabel Reynolds and Stephen Stapczynski/Bloomberg News (TNS)

Japan will ban imports of Russian coal, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said, in a bold policy shift that is adding pressure on Moscow after the European Union announced its own fuel embargo.

“Russia’s cruel and inhumane actions are being exposed one after another across Ukraine,” Kishida told reporters in Tokyo on Friday, adding that Moscow must be held accountable. “We will ban imports of Russian coal.”

Japan will quickly find alternative sources and reduce imports in stages, thereby reducing dependence on Russia for energy, he added, declining to give a timetable for the move.

The coal plan signals a reversal of policy for Japan, which had previously halted the severing of energy ties with Russia due to its heavy reliance on fuel imports. Russian coal imports account for about 13% of Japan’s energy supply and are also used in steel production and the cement industry.

But while the coal action came as a surprise, Kishida moved with unprecedented speed to crack down on Russia, including freezing the assets of individuals and entities, and stripping the country of its trading status as a most favored nation. The prime minister has sought to show solidarity with the United States and Europe on sanctions, fearing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could embolden China to take similar action in disputed territory in Asia.

The sanctions have been popular with the public, according to polls, bolstering support for Kishida’s government ahead of upper house elections to be held in July. The Prime Minister also promised that his government would develop the most significant measures possible to combat rising prices.

Japan’s move comes as pressure mounts against Russia in response to reports that the country’s forces have committed apparent war crimes in Ukraine. The EU agreed on Thursday to ban imports of Russian coal, while Group of Seven leaders issued a statement saying the countries would ban new investment in Russia’s energy sector and expand trade restrictions, including scrapping phase-in and a ban on coal imports.

Japan will also ban imports of Russian products such as vodka and certain types of wood from next week, while new investments in Russia would also be banned, Kishida said.

In a new round of financial sanctions, the government will freeze the assets of Sberbank of Russia PJSC and Alfa Bank PJSC and other Russian individuals and groups, bringing the total to around 550 individuals and 40 groups, he added. .

Before Kishida spoke, Japan’s foreign ministry said the country would expel eight Russian officials, including diplomats. The ministry summoned the country’s ambassador and told him that Tokyo believed Kremlin forces had committed war crimes in Ukraine, spokeswoman Hikariko Ono told reporters.

Japan was reluctant to break completely with Russia. Kishida said last week that his country would not withdraw from the Sakhalin-1 offshore oil joint venture with Russia, or the Sakhalin-2 liquefied natural gas export project, citing Japan’s energy security needs.

However, several power producers in Japan have said they will not make additional spot or forward purchases of Russian coal. Jera Co., Japan’s top power producer, has Russian coal in its portfolio but aims to secure supplies from other countries in the future, according to a company spokesman. Kyushu Electric Power Co. suspended spot purchases of Russian coal, while Shikoku Electric Power Co. said it would not import from the country at this time.

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