An important new poll on U.S. attitudes toward Japan’s wartime past will please neither those who feel that Japan has not done enough to atone nor those who believe that Japan has done all it needs to do. Using a sample of 1,000 registered voters in California, the survey by Pacific Research & Strategies is part of an annual program that asks American voters about their attitudes on Asia, Asians and U.S.-Asian relations.

The survey, unlike others, is conducted using registered voters, and, thus, is of greater interest to elected officials and U.S. policymakers. Conducted between Feb. 4-11, some of the same questions will be used in a nationwide survey later this year.

The survey begins by asking respondents, “Are U.S. relations with Asia as important, more important or less important than U.S. relations with Europe?.” Fifty-eight percent responded “as important,” while 18 percent said “more important.” By contrast, 14 percent said that U.S. relations with Asia were “less important” and 11 percent answered “don’t know.”

The results from this question demonstrate a resounding recognition on the part of U.S. voters of the importance of Asia to U.S. interests — something that one only wishes East Coast intellectuals and the Washington Beltway crowd would better understand. Given the importance of Californians in Congress — 12 percent of the House of Representatives and growing — this finding will give strength to a delegation that, when united, other members of Congress are loath to confront.

The second question does not mince words. “Japan was accused of committing brutal war crimes during the Second World War. There are people who feel Japan has not yet apologized enough for these crimes and that it still needs to compensate its victims. Do the Japanese still need to apologize and compensate the victims or is it time to put the past behind us?”

Even though this question is “front loaded,” mentioning, for example, Japan’s “brutal” war crimes, a solid majority — 60 percent — said that it is time to “put the past behind us.” Tweny-nine percent said “apologize and compensate victims.”

Younger respondents and women — by a sizable proportion — are more inclined to put the past behind them. Japanese policymakers can take heart in the fact that there is a substantial majority of voters who wish to put the past behind them, alleviating for the time being any potential political problem with Washington over this issue.

When the question of putting the past behind them was more tightly focused by directing it to a specific instance, namely, a question about compensation for U.S. prisoners of war who were enslaved by Japanese companies during the war “under inhumane conditions,” a bare majority favored putting the past behind them. Fifty-one percent of respondents said that these companies should not be responsible for paying compensation while 35 percent said that they should.

The results of these two questions suggest that there is no great desire on the part of California’s voters to pursue restitution, apologies or to seek other punitive steps against Japan for its World War II behavior. However, to the extent that Japanese officials care about what U.S. voters think, they should not rest content with these findings: Powerful political movements in the U.S. have grown out of a base of public support smaller than 35 percent, often the result of occurrences difficult for policymakers to foresee.

Another question links Japan’s past to its future. “At the end of the Second World War, the United States gave Japan a new constitution that prohibited it forever from having war making capabilities. As a result of its constitution, Japan has limited military forces closely tied to the United States. There are those in Japan who feel it is time to rearm and have armed forces and weapons like any other country. Should Japan rearm, or should it have limited military forces closely tied to the United States?”

Fifty-five percent of respondents indicated that Japan should only have “limited military forces” in contrast to 24 percent who said, “rearm,” and 20 percent who responded, “don’t know.” Significantly more men than women said that Japan should rearm, while significantly more women than men said, “don’t know.”

The 20 percent “don’t know” factor holds the balance to the future of the way this question would play out in Washington, D.C. Usually when “don’t knows” are forced to choose, they split 50-50. Adding another 10 percent to the 55 percent who already favor the status quo would be a significant factor for those democratically elected officials for whom public opinion is an important part of their decision-making process.

In a series of recognition questions, a majority of Americans could not identify the Nanjing Massacre, a solid majority (69 percent) could identify the Bataan Death March, 81 percent had not heard of Unit 731, a bare majority recognized the phrase “comfort women” and 90 percent knew about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Clearly, Californians are more familiar with the dropping of the atomic bomb than with Japan’s wartime atrocities, many of which were perpetrated against American POWs. However, when respondents were asked whether Japan is the victim or the aggressor of WWII, 83 percent responded “aggressor.” Unlike Japan, where the dropping of the bomb has made the Japanese public think of itself as the victim of the war, Americans still see Pearl Harbor as the greater injury.

By contrast to the solid majority who oppose Japan paying compensation or making further apologies, 67 percent of respondents believe that “it is important to know what happened at Nanjing,” while 24 percent said “it no longer matters.”

In another related question, 57 percent of respondents indicate that it is time to declassify all U.S. and Japanese documents relating to Japan’s war crimes, while 35 percent said that the documents should remain classified. While the survey demonstrates that voters do not want to hold Japan responsible any longer for its wartime behavior, it also demonstrates that they do favor keeping alive the memory of that behavior.

Education, not compensation or apologies, is the preference of the voter. The respondents are neither vindictive nor vengeful. Indeed, their responses seem to contain an element of measured justice, believing that public awareness is the greatest force for checking the abuses of the past.

But there is an accompanying note of caution as seen from two other questions, suggesting a reservoir of opinion that distrusts Japan. It would be all too easy to suggest that distrust is the result of anti-Japanese bigotry, however, the survey disproves this hypothesis.

When asked questions relating to stereotypes of Japanese, some drawn from WWII propaganda, 35 percent of respondents identified the Japanese as “hard working,” while another 17 percent said that they were a “good friend and ally.” Ten percent said that they were “innovative” and 9 percent said that they were “polite.” Only 4 percent said that they were “sneaky,” while 2 percent said that they were “untrustworthy” and another 2 percent responded that they were “arrogant.” The Californian voter has a strong and positive attitude toward Japanese.

Could distrust be the result of a growing American preference for China? Not according to another query of the survey. When asked, “From the point of view of American interests, does China offer more to the United States than does Japan?,” 46 percent said “no,” 26 percent said “yes,” and 28 percent responded “don’t know.” The large “don’t know” response to this question, exceeding those who preferred China, suggests that there is a large undecided factor among the electorate holding the balance to the future of U.S.-Japan relations.

The seeds of distrust are to be found in the following two questions. When asked, “Knowing that Japan did some pretty horrible things during the Second World War, which one of the following statements comes closest to how you feel about Japan today?,” 49 percent responded “the U.S.’ most important friend,” 22 percent replied “unfriendly competitor,” and 29 percent, the second largest response group, said “don’t know.”

And when asked, “If Japan rearmed and developed an independent foreign policy separate from the United States, do you think that Japan would become a menace to other countries in Asia and to us as it did during the years leading up to the Second World War?,” 41 percent responded in the affirmative, 43 percent said “no,” and 16 percent said “don’t know.”

The even split in voter opinion and the high percentage of those who responded “don’t know” to the last several questions suggest that there still exists concern among a large number of voters about the behavior of Japan. After years of headlines about Japan’s unfair trade practices, the distrust appears to be more the result of Japan’s wartime past than with its trade and economic policies. Years of friendship and alliance have not entirely blunted concern. Women, by almost 10 percent, were more inclined to believe that Japan would become a menace to Asia and America.

Given the value Americans attach to their relations with Asia as measured by this survey, the reservoir of distrust for Japan takes on increased significance. Because this reservoir of distrust continues to dog the heels of the Japanese-American alliance, the most important bilateral relationship in the world today, Japan needs to move affirmatively, finally putting an end to lingering doubt and suspicion. Accomplishing this goal is more a matter of attitude than deed. It requires that Japan throws open the window to its past through visible and ongoing efforts to discuss its wartime behavior with the Japanese public and the world in an honest, frank and open way. This alone will instill confidence for the future in its friends and allies.

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