Sunday, January 15, 2012

Annual Japanese polls on views toward the U.S. out of sync

Asst Sec of State Kurt Campbell in jeans in Tokyo
Japanese views of their relationship with the United States are conflicted. The Alliance remains a legacy of World War II and the Cold War, both of which are out of sync with Japan’s current political and economic power. How Japan should manage its dependency on U.S. markets and military power haunts every political discussion.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the widely diverging conclusions of two annual opinion surveys issued every December – the official Cabinet Office poll (J) and the Yomiuri-Gallup poll (E). They purport to measure the same things: how the Japanese people feel about their international relationships. The Cabinet Office survey of Japan’s foreign relations gauges Japanese feelings toward other countries, including the U.S., while the joint Yomiuri-Gallup poll measures just the views of Japanese toward America and vice versa.

In recent years, the two polls diverge or are at least be out of sync when it comes to Japanese views of the United States. In the latest 2011 Cabinet Office survey, good feelings toward the U.S. are at a record high of 82%, continuing a trend in recent years. Further, 75.4% of Japanese regard bilateral relations to be in good shape.

In contrast, the Yomiuri’s 2011 tally found only 35% of Japanese seeing bilateral relations as good, continuing a recent steady erosion of positive feelings toward the U.S. Moreover, a record 41% thought that the relationship was in bad shape.

Why does the Yomiuri survey differ so dramatically from the official survey, and which poll may be closer to the true views of the Japanese public? Analysis of the surveys may help solve this puzzle.

Cabinet Office: All time high in good feelings toward U.S.
The Cabinet Office survey asks only two questions both with only yes or no choice. There is no room for nuance. Although respondents are asked to take an overall view, people usually seize on the most striking or recent event to make their overall evaluation.

In contrast, the questionnaire for the Yomiuri poll is filled with issue-related questions and allows nuanced responses. People are required to think about main events in the year while selecting their answers.

The Cabinet Office survey is potentially useful in gauging long-term trends in public opinion, but offers little on how the public might feel about specific issues regarding other countries. Since 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan became Japan’s ruling party, the survey trended sharply positive toward the U.S., even during periods of friction, such as during the rocky Hatoyama administration.

Despite the goodwill generated by U.S. support of Japan after its devastating earthquake, the 2011 poll does not show a significant upward bump. Although the survey showed a record high of 82% of Japanese holding friendly feelings toward the U.S., this figure was only 2.1 points more than the figure in 2010. In fact, the percentage has been rising since 2008, when it was 73%. In the 2009 survey, the public’s good feelings toward the U.S. were 78.9%.

The 2011 level of those professing unfriendly feelings toward the U.S. decreased 2.9 points to 15.5 percent, the lowest since the poll began in 1978. The poll also found 73.4% of Japanese agreeing that relations between Japan and the United States were ''good,” up 0.4 point, while the proportion of those not perceiving relations as good slid to 23.2 percent, down 1.3 points.

Yomiuri poll: All time low in good feelings toward the U.S.
Every year, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper, and the U.S. pollster Gallup carry out a joint opinion survey in Japan and the United States of views toward each other’s country and outstanding issues. The latest poll was released on December 18, 2010. In it, a record 41% of Japanese saw the bilateral relationship as not being in good shape, while only 35% felt positive about the current state of relations.

Americans were more positive, with 52% seeing relations with Japan as good, while 8% regard them as poor. Disturbing signs of erosion surfaced in the 2010 poll, when for the first time since the poll began in 1978, negative views outweighed positive views about the state of bilateral relations. Though Americans were more upbeat, there has been a slow deterioration in positive views over the last several years.

The main reason for the bleak Japanese assessment of ties with the U.S. is attributable to the impasse over the Futenma relocation issue, with 82% of respondents saying it was having a negative impact on bilateral ties. The figure in 2010 was 79%. One can surmise that unless the issue is resolved, Futenma will continue to erode public perceptions of the overall health of the relationship.

The Yomiuri-Gallup poll found an almost unanimous 94% of the Japanese public appreciated the U.S. military help for Japan after the 3-11 disaster. But such good feelings have not carried over to the public’s view of bilateral ties across the board. The survey also found a high appreciation – 71% -- for the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty as contributing to the security of the Asia-Pacific.

Moreover, the efforts of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in rescue and relief operations after the earthquake and tsunami gave it a major boost in the public eye. Asked to pick any public entity or organization that they trusted, the top choice of the Japanese public with 75% was the SDF. This was up 12 points from last year’s 63%.

Japanese bleak assessment of the future of U.S.-Japan relations is equally pessimistic. Asked whether they felt bilateral ties would improve or not in the future, only 11% thought ties would improve, and 12% said they would get worse. An overwhelming 74% of Japanese felt things would remain the same, which would normally be seen as a positive endorsement of the status quo. But given the public’s 41% negative assessment of relations, its view of future ties not changing also has a pessimistic tone.
Trust factor is the key to understanding public perceptions
Asked if they trusted the United States, 47% of Japanese answered yes and 42% answered no. The figures in 2010 were 52% and 47%, respectively, indicating new slippage. The recovery of Japanese confidence in America after years of decline, as seen in 2009 and 2010, has reversed itself in the new poll. Americans, however, remain much more trustful of Japan, rising to 67% from 2010’s 64%.

It is not at all clear why Japanese are becoming more distrustful of the U.S. in 2011, given the outpouring of support and goodwill following the 3-11 earthquake disaster and the high esteem that the public still holds for President Obama. One can speculate that the Japanese public is deeply concerned over the future of the U.S. given the deep internal divide in Washington over managing the country’s economy, public debt, and social welfare agenda, as well as an overall perception in the world of America in decline.

Japanese trust in the U.S. in Japan, going back to 2001, was a healthy 50.9%, with distrust at 35%. But the figure dropped to 48.8% in 2002, 41% in 2003, 37.8% in 2004, and 36.6% in 2005. It rose to 41% in 2006, and then dropped again in 2007 to 33.8%. It reached a record low in 2008 of 31.7%. Distrust in turn rose from 35% in 2001 to 39.1% in 2002, 45% in 2003, and 52.7% in 2004, leveled off at 52.5% in 2005, before sliding to 47% in 2006. It rose again in 2007 to 53.8% and reached a disturbing 59.5% in 2008.

Rising Japanese distrust of the U.S. between 2001 and 2008 can be attributed to such factors as the unpopular Iraq war, contentious U.S. base issues in Japan, including incidents involving U.S. personnel and the relocation of Futenma Air Station in Okinawa. Perceptions of U.S. unilateralism, such as the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol also played a role in the erosion of Japanese confidence in America. The reversal of this trend during 2009-2010 can only be explained by the effect on public opinion of President Obama and his policies.

Alliance appreciated in both countries
Another key question in the survey is whether respondents think the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty contributes to security in the Asia-Pacific region. In Japan, an impressive 71% of Japanese answered yes this year, though this was down 5 points from 2010. The figure was a distressing 59.7% in 2008, when the U.S. and Japan clashed over policy toward North Korea.

Since then, there has been a growing sense of urgency about the security in the region that is being reflected in the survey. In the 2011 poll, 85% of Japanese expressed distrust of China, and in the 2010 poll, 85% felt that the China’s excessive reaction to an incident near the Senkakus, which both countries claim, made it imperative for Japan to cooperate deeply with the U.S. against aggressive moves by that country in nearby waters. The latest poll also saw an overwhelming need for Japan to cooperate with the U.S. in meeting the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.

This last set of numbers relative to all in both surveys suggests that it might not be as important for Japan to like or trust the U.S. as it is for Japan to need the U.S.

William Brooks
APP Senior Fellow
First published in the January 9, 2012 issue of APP's Asia Policy Calendar

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