Two recent polls on grass-roots perception — one in Japan, China and South Korea, and the other in Japan and the United States — offer a helpful clue in putting Japan’s relations with these other countries in a perspective wider than government-level relations. The survey conducted by Kyodo News in mid-May, with some 1,000 people responding each in Japan, China and South Korea, show that our neighbors look at Japan with critical eyes.

In China, 83 percent of the pollees say they feel little or no warmth toward Japan. The corresponding figure in South Korea is 75 percent. Both figures represent a worsening of sentiment toward Japan since the previous poll in 2002. At that time, people who felt little or no warmth toward Japan accounted for 67 percent in China and 69 percent in South Korea.

By contrast, 48 percent in Japan hold either some or strong feelings of warmth toward China; and 58 percent toward South Korea. Interestingly, while the figure for China represents a decrease of six percentage points from the 2002 poll, the corresponding figure for South Korea has gone up by five percentage points probably due to the “Hanryu” boom or heightened interest among Japanese in South Korean movies and TV dramas.

In the other poll conducted in early July in Japan and the U.S., to which some 1,000 people responded in each country, 52 percent of the Japanese pollees say the U.S. government cannot be trusted, an increase of 26 percentage points from a similar poll in 1991. By contrast, 59 percent in the U.S. regard the Japanese government as trustworthy.

Americans’ general warm feeling toward Japan is not reciprocated by Japanese. While 81 percent in the U.S. say they feel some warmth or have a strong warm feeling toward Japan, only 68 percent in Japan have such a feeling toward the U.S.

The polls seem to indicate that national leaders’ behavior and attitude strongly affect people’s perception of the countries led by them. In the case of Japan-U.S. relations, President George W. Bush’s unilateralist diplomacy and security policy, as represented by the Iraq war, apparently has caused apprehension among Japanese people.

Concerning the relationship between Japan, on the one hand, and China and South Korea, on the other, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and 13 other convicted class-A war criminals as well as 2.46 million Japanese war dead, apparently has influenced Chinese and South Koreans’ chilly perception of Japan. Other likely causes for such a perception are state-screening approval of a nationalist history textbook and a territorial row over Takeshima Island with South Korea and a separate one over Senkaku Islands with China.

Eighty-six percent of the Chinese pollees and 82 percent of the South Korean pollees say Mr. Koizumi should not visit Yasukuni Shrine. Although he explains that he makes a pledge of not repeating war when he visits Yasukuni Shrine, the poll indicates that Chinese and South Koreans do not accept his explanation and take issue with the Yasukuni visit itself, irrespective of what he thinks or prays at the shrine.

There is a strong possibility that China’s anti-Japanese education and campaigns have affected the people’s perception of Japan. Still, the poll results indicate that a national leader must take utmost care in his behavior so that people of other countries do not take him as callous toward their feelings.

Even in Japan, opponents of Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visit are larger in number than supporters (41 percent against and 31 percent for) — a reversal of the 2002 poll findings. At that time, 33 percent opposed and 54 percent supported his Yasukuni visit.

To improve bilateral relations, 57 percent in China call for solving the issue of the historical perception, which concerns Japan’s colonialism and war-making in the past, while 42 percent in South Korea demand Japan’s apology and compensation for past deeds.

There is a bright side to the poll. Forty-three percent in China and 30 percent in South Korea say they are interested in Japan’s mass culture like movies, music, animation and fashion either “very much” or ”to some extent.” It is encouraging that 63 percent of Chinese pollees in their 20s and 52 percent of corresponding pollees in South Korea have interest in Japan’s mass culture.

The poll results show that “soft power” as embodied in artistic activities, entertainment and education can have a beneficial effect on overall relations between countries. But at the same time the poll indicates that, unless soft power is accompanied by efforts to solve the historical perception issue, enduring friendly relations between Japan and its neighboring countries will be hard to come by.

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