12-year survey: Japanese view of China and Korea hits record low

November 29, 2012

Japanese nationalists carry national flags and placards during a rally over the Senkaku islands. (Rie Ishii -- AFP/GettyImages)

Since 2000, the Japanese government has surveyed public opinion toward a handful of foreign countries, and this year's results found something surprising and potentially quite significant. The number of respondents who reported they feel "friendly" toward Japan's two most important neighbors, China and South Korea, have hit record lows. 

Those holding negative views of South Korea exceed those with positive views for the first time in the survey's history, a dramatic and rapid reversal of previous scores. The number of Japanese who lack "affinity" for China now exceed those with positive feelings for the country by a proportion of over four-to-one. Here are the official results (the blue represents "friendly" feelings, the black line negative), and below that some thoughts on why this matters:

Source: Official Japanese government survey

Japan's relationship with China has been nose-diving since a dispute over which country can rightfully claim three tiny, uninhabited islands – known as the Diaoyus in China and Senkakus in Japan – exploded in angry nationalist protests and several tense naval incidents. Protests in China became especially fierce, attacking Japanese stores and burning Japanese cars.

Japan is also embroiled in a smaller scale but still emotional island sovereignty dispute with South Korea over the Dokdo or Takeshima islands. 

But this may not be as simple as two islands disputes sparking some nationalist sentiment that has trickled down into this poll. After all, these islands have been disputed for years; it's possible that this is a chicken-or-egg problem, and that it may in fact be rising nationalism that is manifesting itself in the island incidents and protests. (This latest skirmish began when Tokyo's nationalist mayor, a prominent figure in Japan, offered to "buy" the islands from their private, Japanese owner.) 

China's rise as a nation may have contributed to rising nationalist sentiment in that country, where pro-Chinese nationalism is rarely far away from anti-Japanese sentiment. Meanwhile, Japan may be beginning to inch away from its post-war identity as a strictly pacifist nation, according to a recent story in The New York Times, reasserting the military strength that devastated much of Asia in the 1930s and '40s, attempting to meet China's own growing might.

Again, it's not clear if rising militarism is leading to rising nationalism, if it's the other way around, or if the two just happen to be coincidental. But if Japanese sentiment toward Korea is also nosediving, then this may be about more than just responding to China's rise, and could represent a larger shift in Japan back toward the nationalism of an earlier era. That doesn't mean that the old imperial ways are returning, of course – the world has changed too much in the last century, and Japanese public opinion toward the United States remains quite high. But nationalism is no minor force in global politics, particularly in East Asia.

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Max Fisher · November 28, 2012