Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Where's the love? Japanese feel unhappy, unloved and pessimistic

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

The results of a Pew Opinion survey released in July 2013 found that the public mood in Japan is improving but remains “mostly one of dissatisfaction.” However, that dissatisfaction is 10 percent lower than the level registered in 2007 during Shinzo Abe’s first spell as premier.

Pew conducted the survey in March-April 2013, and its results also show that 71 percent of Japanese think economic conditions are bad, with just 40 percent expecting improvement in the national economy in the next year. A mere 12 percent think their own situation will improve, while only 15 percent expect that today’s children will be better off than their parents.

The findings of this survey conducted under the auspices of the The Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank, suggest that Abe-phoria is muted; overall Abe’s “favorable” rating was a stratospheric 71 percent, but only 15 percent of respondents declared themselves “very favorable,” while 56 percent said they were “somewhat favorable” — showing support for him is lukewarm.

Since then, Abe’s popularity in Japanese media polls has dropped to 60 percent, which is still enviable compared to predecessors, though there is a sense that he has peaked and the honeymoon is over as media scrutiny intensifies in the wake of his party’s recent Upper House election triumph.

With 90 percent of Japanese reporting in recent domestic polls that they haven’t yet benefited from Abenomics, spurring perceptions that it is welfare for the wealthy, there is growing concern that Japan’s new version of trickle-down will leave the vulnerable high and dry while plans for labor-market deregulation will cause a hollowing out of the middle class.

Meanwhile, the precariat of non-regular workers in low-paid, dead-end employment without job security has spiked to 38 percent of the entire labor force. They are definitely not feeling the love — and because they are skint, they contribute to deflation, fiscal woes and low fertility because The Beatles were not entirely right about money and love.

Interestingly, fewer Japanese have a very favorable opinion of Japan now (22 percent) than in 2007 (30 percent) during Abe ver. 1.0. A solid majority (56 percent) oppose Abe’s agenda of changing war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, with just 36 percent overall in favor. Among women, however, only 28 percent favor constitutional revision.

Around the region, Pew found mixed perceptions of Japan. They were extremely positive in Malaysia (80 percent), Indonesia (79 percent), Australia (78 percent) and the Philippines (78 percent) — but, as one would expect, unfavorable opinion is sky high in China (90 percent) and South Korea (77 percent), where perceptions have soured considerably since previous polls.

Unresolved historical grievances are a significant factor in Japan’s negative image in East Asia; 98 percent of South Koreans and 78 percent of Chinese don’t think Japan has sufficiently apologized for its military actions in the 1930s and ’40s. In contrast, Japan is seen to be insufficiently contrite by just 47 percent of Filipinos, 40 percent of Indonesians and 30 percent of Malaysians and Australians.

Interestingly, 26 percent of Australians agree on “no apology necessary” — the highest such sentiment by far in the region. Given that Aussies were baying for Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) to be prosecuted for war crimes following Japan’s surrrender in 1945, and with POWs from Down Under having kept their brutal treatment at the hands of Japanese captors in the public eye throughout the post-World War II era, it is somewhat surprising that so many Australians are now ready to let Japan off the hook.

Only 28 percent of Japanese believe that Japan has not sufficiently apologized for its wartime conduct, while 48 percent think it has and 15 percent believe that no apology is needed. It is also surprising to learn that 63 percent of Japanese think the past is no longer their problem and 73 percent of younger Japanese (aged 18 to 29) believe the issue of Japanese war guilt is behind them. If true, this is a dangerous, self-deluding fantasy because Japanese don’t get to decide when Japan’s depredations in the past no longer matter.

It also marks a stunning shift, as polls since the early 1990s have consistently indicated that most Japanese don’t think their government has done enough to acknowledge war responsibility and atone for Japan’s misdeeds.

It’s worth noting, too, that Pew’s survey was conducted before three Cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minster Taro Aso, and a phalanx of 168 Diet members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, flocked to Yasukuni Shrine in April 2013, and before Abe quibbled about wartime aggression in the Diet — both actions that provoked considerable international and domestic criticism.

Newspaper polls indicate that 75 percent of Japanese repudiated nationalist politician Toru Hashimoto’s dubious apologist comments on wartime sex slaves. This suggests that the Pew findings might not be a reliable gauge of public sentiments about wartime history, as the survey question was about “military actions” in general — with no specific reference to atrocities or horrific incidents.

The best assessment of Japanese attitudes about war responsibility remains Sven Saaler’s book, “Politics, Memory and Public Opinion” (2005). His findings suggest that the Japanese people accept war responsibility and disagree with efforts by conservative elites to airbrush the past.

Despite longstanding whitewashing and a chorus of denials, could Japan be suffering from apology fatigue?

Nationalist hawks like Abe and Shintaro Ishihara have slammed what they refer to as Japan’s “masochistic history” and “apology diplomacy.” While Chinese and South Koreans are flabbergasted by claims that Japan has overindulged self-flagellation about its shared history with Asia, Japanese conservatives complain that dwelling on this horrid history prevents the nation’s young from taking pride in their country. But hijacking history to stoke jingoism is undignified and needlessly antagonizes nations victimized by Japanese aggression.

Personally, Abe is predictably unpopular in China and South Korea, with an 85 percent negative rating in each country. The Pew pollsters speculate that this may be related to his 2012 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s Class-A war criminals are enshrined — but perhaps it’s because he is well known for his efforts to beautify Japanese history and disregard the suffering Imperial Japan inflicted on its neighbors.

The Pew survey also found that 60 percent of Japanese feel they are not accorded enough respect around the world. Alas, Pew didn’t have any questions asking Japanese why they aren’t feeling the love. This may have to do with Japanese anxieties about the country’s declining influence and the fact the future might be China’s.

A Pew survey conducted in the United States earlier this year found that “just 6 percent of Americans cite Japan as an economic powerhouse today, compared with almost half who thought Tokyo was top dog in 1990.”

Regarding this, the pollsters opined: “One reason may be that China has replaced Japan as America’s principal trade competitor, both in fact and in the minds of the American people. In 1990, Japan accounted for 40.7 percent of the U.S. merchandise trade deficit. China made up just 10.3 percent. By 2012, Japan accounted for only 10.5 percent of the U.S. global imbalance. China was responsible for 43.3 percent.”

Perhaps Japanese can take some solace from knowing that despite ups and downs in bilateral relations, two-thirds of the U.S. respondents think well of Japan — the same level as in 1990.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.