While Japan is not an Arctic country, it is strongly affected by the environmental changes in the polar region. As the Arctic sea shrinks, the summertime sees the Northern Sea Route open for longer stretches, allowing cargo ships to pass between Europe and Asia. At the mouth of the passage’s Asia side, sits Japan. In 2012, the first freighter sailed from Europe to Japan using the Northern Sea Route. The commercial and environmental consequences give Japan a strong interest in Arctic changes and in May 2013, Japan became an ‘Observer’ on the Arctic Council.

Japan has three national centres focussed on Arctic activities. Two of these, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) and the National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) focus primarily on the natural science viewpoint of Arctic change. But environmental change is a very human problem, both in its cause and the consequences for economic activities and the livelihood of the Arctic communities. For this reason, the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University was started in April 2015 to bring together research in social science, humanities and natural science to explore the consequences of Arctic change.

Research at the Arctic Research Center is divided into six subcategories:

  1. The ‘Atmosphere and Hydrosphere Research Group’, which focuses on climate change, sea ice and the marine ecosystems.
  2. The ‘Terrestrial Research Group’, where members examine the permafrost and the genetic diversity in mammals, fishes and plants.
  3. The ‘Cryosphere Research Group’, with a special interest in the Greenland ice sheets and Arctic glaciers.
  4. The ‘Practical Research Group’, which looks at engineering aspects of utilising the Northern Sea Route and takes advantage of Hokkaido’s snowy weather to investigate architecture suitable for cold climates.
  5. The ‘Social Science and Humanities Group’ that focuses on the impact of environment and economic change on the people living in the Arctic and the social-economic impact of changes to the Northern Sea Route.
  6. The ‘Satellite Observation and Modeling Research Group’, which is concerned with modelling climate change and mapping out the future.

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