A new poll has found that Americans are broadly favorable toward Japan, with the majority in favor of keeping the relationship between Tokyo and Washington as it is or strengthening it.
What makes the relationship so important to Americans? One key factor appears to be Japan's rising neighbor: China.
The poll, conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in March, found that when people were asked whether the United States should change its relationship with Japan in the face of “an increasingly powerful China,” 43 percent said that the country should strengthen its relationship with Japan, and 46 percent said that it should keep the relationship the same.
One in 10 Americans said they thought Washington should downplay its alliance with Japan to improve U.S. relations with China.
Notably, when the Chicago Council asked the same question 10 years ago in 2008, 32 percent of Americans said the country should strengthen its relationship with China, while 54 percent said there should be no change, and 9 percent said it should downplay it.
The poll was released after President Trump welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, marking a second high-profile visit to the Florida resort by the Japanese leader.
Although both leaders are facing scandals and low approval ratings at home, as well as major disagreements over trade, their views of Japan's role in East Asia align in a number of significant aspects. Most strikingly, Trump has criticized Japan's military dependence on the United States, while Abe has hopes of altering Japan's pacifist constitution.
Both leaders have been critical of the threat posed by a rising China — a position held by the majority of the U.S. public, to an extent. In the Chicago Council's polling, 62 percent of Americans view China as a rising military power. However, 39 percent view it as a critical threat facing the United States, compared with 78 percent who said the same of North Korea.
Americans were largely optimistic about Japan's ability to deal with world problems, with a total of 62 percent saying that they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the country; in contrast, 41 percent said the same of China. On a personal level, Abe was viewed favorably by 64 percent of Americans, compared with 32 percent who said the same of China's Xi Jinping.
A 65 percent majority of Americans described China and Japan as mostly rivals, while 49 percent said that of their own country's relationship with China. Meanwhile, 46 percent of Americans said they want Japan to take more responsibility in East Asia — a roughly similar percentage to what they say about South Korea and China, but higher than with Russia and even the United States, where 24 percent wanted an increased role.
When asked about what more Japan could do, 49 percent of Americans said they were in favor of Japan building up its military to deal with regional threats, while 14 percent opposed this. Thirty-nine percent also said that they would be supportive of Japan undertaking independent combat missions, while 19 percent opposed it. However, large numbers of Americans had no opinion on these questions.
The relative support for a more militaristic Japan among Americans — including Trump, who has dubbed the country a “warrior nation” — is not necessarily shared widely in Japan. Attempts to reform the country's postwar constitution have proved consistently controversial, with recent polls showing majority opposition. To change the constitution, Abe would likely need to win a referendum.
But American support for Japan may not be the result of a deep knowledge of the country. The Chicago Council noted that 7 percent of Americans reported having visited Japan. In each question about what more Japan could do internationally, at least one-third of respondents said they did not know enough to respond.
The Chicago Council's survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research between Feb. 20 and March 6, using an online research panel with a weighted national sample of 1,037 adults. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
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