Zelenskyy appeals to Japan in unprecedented online speech to parliament

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will deliver an online speech to Japanese lawmakers later on Wednesday, in what is expected to be an emotionally charged speech meant to unite partners in fighting back against Russia after it invaded his country.

The virtual address will be broadcast in two separate locations near the Parliament building from around 6 p.m.

The speech – a foreign leader’s first online address to parliament – will also be streamed online for some lawmakers, as places there are limited. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, heads of both houses of parliament and Ukrainian Ambassador to Japan Sergiy Korsunsky will be among the participants.

“I guess he will talk about the demands and expectations for our country. I would like to think about what more we can do,” Kishida told a parliamentary session on Tuesday.

Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian who has delivered a series of impassioned speeches online urging the world to fight Russian aggression in his country, has previously delivered virtual addresses to the US Congress, as well as parliaments across Europe, Canada and Israel, among others.

These speeches were part of a strategy to emotionally appeal to nations by invoking the richer aspects of their history. In his address to the US Congress, he invoked the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., saying he too dreamed of a no-fly zone over his country. He told Britain’s parliament that Ukraine would fight in the woods, fields and on the beaches – a pledge reminiscent of British leader Winston Churchill’s vow not to give in to the Nazis. To German lawmakers, he referred to the Cold War, urging Chancellor Olaf Scholz to “tear down” a new wall dividing Europe.

Zelenskyy’s speech to the US Congress had at first aroused some apprehension about him speaking to Japanese lawmakers after mentioning the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in the same breath as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, though those concerns have largely subsided.

Kenta Izumi, leader of the main opposition Democratic Constitutional Party of Japan, had previously expressed caution to get Zelenskyy talking, initially saying a foreign leader addressing parliament should only take place after that leader and the Japanese prime minister have spoken and issued a joint statement. His party then agreed to work with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to deliver the speech.

It’s unclear exactly how the charismatic Ukrainian leader will seek to woo a Japanese audience, though he is expected to address Tokyo’s increasingly acrimonious relationship with Moscow. Russia said on Monday it was abandoning long-running talks on a formal peace treaty ending World War II, accusing the Japanese side of triggering the move after imposing a number of onerous sanctions on companies and senior officials, including President Vladimir Putin.

Lawmakers watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy deliver a virtual speech outside Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa on March 15. | Reuters

Zelenskyy could also focus part of his speech on Putin’s nuclear rattle – a threat that has pissed off many but is likely to resonate particularly in Japan. As the only country to have been attacked with nuclear weapons, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are seared into popular consciousness, and Zelenskyy could use Putin’s implied threats to use the weapons to attract a Japanese audience.

Tokyo surprised some observers with its tough stance on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, quickly joining coordinated measures with other Group of Seven countries. This marked a notable change after years under the former prime minister. Shinzo Abe, who had decided to bring Moscow to accept a peace agreement.

In two other surprising moves, Japan – known for its tough refugee standards – quickly welcomed Ukrainians fleeing the war-torn country while sending non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine, a rare case of sending equipment in a country under armed attack.

Kishida and other senior Japanese officials have repeatedly issued scathing criticism of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, calling attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force unacceptable in all regions. The calls were widely seen as an implicit acknowledgment by Japan that acquiescing to Russian measures could have consequences in Asia, with Beijing also looking to take a page from Moscow’s playbook, perhaps in Taiwan or the islands. Senkaku under Japanese control, which are also claimed by China.

A Kyodo News poll released on Sunday found that more than 75% of respondents expressed concern that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine could spur China to try to forcibly seize Taiwan and the Senkakus. This followed a similar survey conducted a day earlier by Mainichi and Saitama University’s Center for Social Investigation Research, which found that 9 out of 10 Japanese feared China would invade Taiwan, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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