Japan and the Challenge of G7 Leadership: Toward an Inclusive, Rules-Based World Order


The presidency of the Group of Seven has passed to Japan at a time when the war in Ukraine has injected new relevance into the forum while also highlighting the need for closer partnership with the Global South. How is the Japanese government responding to this challenge in the runup to the G7 Hiroshima Summit?

Japan has participated in the Group of Seven industrial democracies as the sole Asian member for almost a half century, and this year’s May 19–20 Hiroshima Summit will be the seventh G7 summit held in Japan. The presidency of the G7 has passed to Japan at a time when Russian aggression in Ukraine has brought into focus the forum’s importance—as well as its limitations—as a framework for deliberation and cooperation among the world’s leading industrial democracies. In the following we will look more closely at the G7’s role in a changing world, the challenges that lie ahead, and the contribution Japan hopes to make in 2023 and beyond.

The G7 in a Changing World

The origins of today’s G7 go back a half century. On March 23, 1973, the finance ministers of the United States, Britain, France, and West Germany met to confer on measures to deal with the oil crisis and its economic impact. With the addition of Japan the following autumn, the forum became known as the Group of Five major industrial democracies.

In 1975, the group expanded to include Italy, and that November, the heads of state gathered in Rambouillet, France, for the first summit of “core” industrialized countries. The forum became the G7 in 1976, when Canada joined, and its second summit was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the same year.

The world has changed dramatically in the half century since the forum’s establishment, transformed by such events as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the financial crisis of 2008, along with the rise of China and the other emerging economies. In 2008, the Group of 20 held the first of its summits, and US President Barack Obama subsequently designated it the “premier forum for international economic cooperation,“ leading some to question the relevance of the G7.

But perspectives have changed in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s refusal to rule out force in achieving the reunification of Taiwan. In the G20 and other forums where Moscow and Beijing have a voice (including the UN Security Council and the World Trade Organization), it has become harder than ever to reach an agreement on key issues. As a consequence, the G7 has reemerged as an important framework for deliberation and cooperation among like-minded governments.

Leading the Reenergized G7

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, beginning in February 2022, marked a major turning point for the G7, bringing into sharp focus the need for closer cooperation among the world’s leading industrial democracies. In 2022, Germany presided over 12 separate conferences (including virtual meetings) of the G7 foreign ministers. Even when held remotely, these discussions played a key role in coordinating a unified response with respect to aid for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

It was against this background that the presidency passed from Germany to Japan in January 2023.

Japan has hosted and chaired six summits previously, beginning in 1979. The first three of those events took place in Tokyo, while subsequent meetings were held in Okinawa, Hokkaidō, and Ise Shima. (Partly out of security concerns, the trend in recent years has been to hold the summit in scenic destinations away from major urban centers, so that the leaders can consult in a quiet, safe environment.) This year’s May 19–20 Hiroshima Summit will be the seventh G7 summit held under Japan’s leadership.

In Japan, the term G7 is more or less synonymous with the G7 summits. But the annual leaders’ meeting is just one of many opportunities for consultation. By the time Japan’s presidency ends on December 31, the Japanese government will have chaired a wide range of on-line and in-person deliberations, including the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture (April 16–18), and the G7 Ministers’ Meeting on Climate, Energy, and Environment in Sapporo, Hokkaidō (April 15–16). For Japan, 2023 is basically “G7 Year.”

With this in mind, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa have been at pains to clarify Japan’s position on the G7’s top agenda items while developing a broader foreign-policy doctrine.

Defining the 2023 Presidency

In his policy speech to the Diet on January 23 this year, Prime Minister Kishida stated as follows: “Attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force must not be tolerated, no matter in which region of the world they occur. Taking the occasion of the G7 Hiroshima Summit, we will convey once more to the international community our strong political will to uphold the free and open international order based on the rule of law.”

Ten days earlier, while visiting the United States, Kishida had clearly articulated his ideas on the role of the G7 in a speech at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “Now that the world is becoming increasingly divided and chaotic,” he said, “what is crucial is ‘who we are’: The G7 is tied together on the basis of common values, and this is the group having functioned most effectively in the aftermath of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”

Kishida has repeatedly stressed the need for the G7 and the rest of the international community to support Ukraine and step up sanctions against Russia, calling the war “a historical turning point.” It should be noted in this context that when Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Japan stopped short of imposing tough economic sanctions, anxious to maintain a productive relationship with Moscow. At the time, Kishida was foreign minister under Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, and his familiarity with that chapter in Japanese diplomacy may have made him especially conscious of the need for a very different response this time around.

Since assuming the presidency of the G7, the Japanese government has also placed strong emphasis on the need to work closely with the Global South. In his January 13 speech at Johns Hopkins, the prime minister warned, “If the Global South, holding integral places in the international arena, turn their back, we will find ourselves in the minority and unable to resolve mounting policy issues.” In keeping with this belief, the current government has been working actively to build closer cooperative ties with partners in South America, where Foreign Minister Hayashi traveled in mid-January, and Africa, which Prime Minister Kishida visited in early May.

Unwavering Solidarity

On February 18, Foreign Minister Hayashi chaired his first G7 foreign ministers’ meeting, on the sidelines of the 2023 Munich Security Conference. Nearly one year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hayashi issued a foreign ministers’ statement reaffirming the G7 members’ “commitment to upholding the international order based on the rule of law” and their “unwavering solidarity with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

On February 24, just one year after Russia launched its invasion, Hayashi spoke to the press in New York, where he had traveled to attend a ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council. In his remarks, Hayashi noted that Russia’s aggression constituted “a violation of the United Nations Charter by a permanent member of the Security Council, which bears the heaviest responsibility for international peace and stability.” He reiterated his position that “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected, that Russia must immediately stop its war of aggression and withdraw from Ukraine, and that it is important for the international community to support Ukraine.”

On the same day that Hayashi delivered that statement, Prime Minister Kishida convened the first G7 leaders’ conference of 2023, held online. Once again he took the opportunity to hammer home the need for stronger support for Ukraine. The G7 Leaders’ Statement issued at the conclusion of the conference criticized Moscow in the strongest terms yet, saying, “We condemn Russia’s illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked war, disregard for the Charter of the United Nations (UN), and indifference to the impacts that its war is having on people worldwide.” The G7 leaders also reaffirmed their unanimity on the need to stand by Ukraine and tighten sanctions against Russia, saying, “We reaffirm our commitment to strengthening the unprecedented and coordinated sanctions and other economic measures the G7 and partner countries have taken to date to further counter Russia’s capacity to wage its illegal aggression.”

Over the past year, the G7 governments have been steadfast in their commitment to support Ukraine and maintain tough sanctions against Russia. In many cases, the economic sanctions have had a negative impact at home, fueling public dissatisfaction. Without dismissing dissenting views on the issue, the G7 leaders are doing the right thing by standing together to uphold the norms and principles on which the international order rests.

Toward an Inclusive International Order

The atmosphere at the in-person G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Karuizawa April 16–18, was friendly and informal, perhaps because the group had conferred on 12 occasions during the previous year. From Tokyo, the ministers had traveled together via high-speed train along the Hokuriku Shinkansen, relaxing in the luxurious GranClass car. On the first evening in Karuizawa, at Hayashi’s suggestion, the ministers were served the Mampei Hotel’s famous apple pie—a favorite of John Lennon, who often stayed in Karuizawa—as they celebrated the birthdays of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna. Hayashi, who graduated from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is fluent in English (an unusual ability among Japanese politicians) and highly sociable. It is difficult to think of anyone more qualified to forge unity from the diverse viewpoints and interests of the G7 countries.

In the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Communiqué of April 18, the participants stated,

“We reaffirm our commitment to collective action to . . . uphold and reinforce the free and open international order based on the rule of law, respecting the United Nations (UN) Charter.” They also pledged to “continue to work with our partners to promote open, transparent, resilient, and sustainable societies that champion human rights, justice, and dignity and address the needs of the most vulnerable.” The second statement dovetails with the Japanese government’s emphasis on stronger cooperative ties with the Global South (while eschewing that term). The G7 must work closely with a wide range of global partners lest it find itself in the minority on important issues. To this end, it will doubtless continue to utilize a wide range of frameworks. Strengthening cooperative ties with India, which holds the G20 presidency, is particularly important in this context.

Since Japan assumed the G7 presidency, one of its key diplomatic themes has been maintaining and strengthening a “free and open international order based on the rule of law.” The Free and Open Indo-Pacific doctrine, adopted by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and continued by his successor Suga Yoshihide, emphasized Japan’s leadership role in the development of a liberal, rules-based Indo-Pacific order. Under Kishida, the government has expressed a strong resolve to go beyond such regional efforts and make a difference at the global level. The G7 Hiroshima Summit in May will be an excellent opportunity for Japan to display just this sort of leadership.

In this way, Japan has developed its own unique foreign-policy doctrine that stresses global inclusivity and diversity along with the rule of law. This is an important stance to take at a time of deepening global divisions, amid the mounting animosity and bitterness fueled by Russia’s aggression. The success of the G7 going forward may well hinge on the outcome of Japan’s efforts to advance this agenda at the G7 Hiroshima Summit and beyond.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Counterclockwise from rear center, Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, Deputy Secretary-General of the European External Action Service Enrique Mora, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, and Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, at the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, April 18, 2023. © Jiji.)

Hiroshima diplomacy Kishida Fumio G7