Japan is regarded among the American public and opinion leaders as the most important country in Asia, according to the results of an annual survey by the Foreign Ministry.

It was the first time in four years that the survey, released Friday, found that both U.S. groups viewed Japan in such a positive light.

The ministry commissioned Nielsen Consumer Insights Inc. to conduct the survey, which found that 46 percent of the 1,003 Americans aged 18 and over who were polled consider Japan the most important Asian partner for the United States, up 11 points from last year. Twenty-six percent of them chose China, a decrease of 13 points.

The survey, conducted from July 31 to Aug. 21, also showed that 58 percent of 200 American opinion leaders from such fields as politics, academia and the media selected Japan, up 19 points from last year. China was chosen by 24 percent of them, down 19 points.

Some of the respondents said the result reflected a growing view that China poses a strategic challenge to the United States, rather than being seen as a potential partner. Others said there had been much negative news from China compared to Japan, which offered relatively positive news, according to a ministry official.

But the ministry didn’t have much insight as to why the American public responded more favorably to Japan, the official acknowledged.

Among the respondents in the general public who chose Japan as the United States’ top Asian ally, 63 percent cited political ties as the primary reason, 19 percent chose trade and economic relations, and 11 percent picked Japan’s national character and culture.

Among opinion leaders, 59 percent cited political ties as their main reason, followed by 37 percent who nominated trade and economic relations, and 22 percent on account of Japan’s national character and culture.

The ratio of respondents who thought the U.S. should maintain the current security treaty with Japan rose both among the general public and opinion leaders. The former increased by 14 percentage points to 81 percent and the latter by 8 percentage points to 85 percent, compared to last year’s survey.

A new question was introduced in the latest survey, asking whether Japan and the United States should closely cooperate for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Ninety-one percent of the general public respondents said yes, and 97 percent of the opinion leaders.

Another new question asked whether Japan should play a more proactive role for peace and stability in the region. Among those surveyed, 81 percent of the general public and 88 percent of opinion leaders said Japan should do so.

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