Unease in Japan, yawns in America?

The Yomiuri Shimbun has published the results of a poll (conducted with Gallup in the US) that surveyed American and Japanese attitudes towards their respective national institutions and the US-Japanese relationship.

As the article summarizing the poll reports, Yomiuri recorded a 14% (to 39%) and 15% (to 46%) drops respectively in the number of Japanese and American respondents answering affirmatively to the question, “Do you think the current US-Japan relationship is good.”

But when one looks that the detailed list of questions asked and the responses, it seems that American responses tend towards the noncommittal. In response to the aforementioned question, for example, 43.6% of American respondents either could not say or did not answer the question. A mere 10.4% said that relations were bad or very bad. Some 60% of American respondents, in answering the question whether they trust Japan, answered that they have great or some trust in Japan, compared to 30% who said that they have little or no trust in Japan. A quarter of American respondents did not answer the question about what impact Prime Minister Fukuda will have on US-Japan relations. (A better question might have been, can you name the prime minister of Japan.)

The survey also asked a number of questions about foreign policy, among which a few bits caught my eye. In a question about threat perception, there was a vast difference in the percentage of American and Japanese respondents who view the “Middle East” as a threat. (Let’s leave aside the question of what this painfully imprecise response actually tells us.) 76% of American respondents said that they view the Middle East as a threat, while only 34.3% of Japanese respondents said the same. I think this illustrates one of the US-Japan alliance’s underlying structural problems, namely that there is little public support in Japan for the transformation of the US-Japan alliance into a global actor active in the Middle East. Japanese threat perceptions are largely focused on (not surprisingly) two countries in its neighborhood, dropping off sharply the further one gets from Japanese shores. American threat perceptions are higher than Japanese perceptions in every instance except for North Korea and China. The US is a global security power, Japan is not. There is no way around this fact.

Also interesting was the question about US bases in Japan, which asked whether the US should reinforce its presence, hold it steady, reduce it, or completely withdraw. A sizable majority (58.2%) of Americans said the US should hold it steady, while in Japan, 52% said the US should cut or withdraw its troops (42.2% favored a cut, 9.8% full withdrawal), while 40% said the US should hold its troop presence steady. Only 1.3% said the US should increase its forces. It is unclear whether this question takes into account the cuts to which both governments agreed in 2006, but these responses do suggest that conflict over this issue remains considerable in Japan. (Another problem with this question is that responses would no doubt vary depending upon whether it was asked in a prefecture hosting US forces.)

In short, I don’t think this survey tells us all that much about the US-Japan relationship, other than that the Japanese people pay a great detail more attention to the relationship than the American people do. Japanese responses tend to be more varied, suggesting the existence of real, studied opinions on the questions asked, whereas the American responses tend towards the status quo and benign responses, which appear to me to be the default responses when lacking information. (“I haven’t heard anything about problems with Japan, so things must be ok.”)

This is an unavoidable fact of life in the alliance. No Japanese politician could become prime minister without a considered opinion of the US-Japan relationship, at the very least. Given the frequency with which cabinet ministers are lauded for their “pipelines” to the US, much more is expected. Thanks in part to the enduring US presence, the relationship with the US is at the forefront of political discussions.

And in the US? Japan barely merits mention in debates among presidential candidates, and has even less visibility among the American people.

None of this is surprising, of course. There’s nothing new about Japan’s being less visible in the US than the US in Japan. But it’s worth recalling when looking at numbers like this. I find it hard to believe that there’s an American public opinion on the US-Japan relationship that exists independent of polls taken to measure supposed opinions.

Mr. Fukuda may desire greater intellectual exchanges between the US and Japan, but the impact of any expansion of bilateral intellectual and cultural contacts will be marginal at best — and while Mr. Aso touts the glories of Japan’s cultural exports, it is unclear to me whether Tokyo can use this soft power to its advantage and raise its political profile in the US and the world at large. If anything, the cultural exports have contributed to the further trivialization of Japan in the eyes of the world. (Japan: manga and Hello Kitty superpower, political midget.)

4 thoughts on “Unease in Japan, yawns in America?

  1. Bryce

    Interesting that 40 percent of Japanese trust Fukuda while a few days ago half supported his cabinet. Trust and support are different things, I suppose.As you\’ve pointed out, there are some fairly silly questions here, particularly for the American side. The hub and spokes nature of globalisation means that things important about America for Japanese (or other non-Americans for that matter) are not so important for Americans when the questions are reversed. I even think the \”showcase\” question about the state Japan-U.S. relations is not something most people in the States really think about. There are people who think that \”cultural exports\” are not always trivial, by the way. A few years back I was lucky(?) enough to be in a fairly senior MOFA official\’s office while he explained to me and my classmates how important Sushi and Kitty-chan were to overseas perceptions of Japan. He wasn\’t impressed with my cynicism. On a different note, and nothing to do with Japan, but do more than one in three Americans really view ASEAN as militarily threatening? This has got to be a mistake. Practically the most recent time ASEAN managed to bring their decision making process to a conclusion was when they formed the organisation. And 15 percent for the EU? Some people even think Australia and New Zealand could be staging the next intifada.


  2. The only way to solve that kind of discrepancy is to have every last American citizen live abroad in Japan for… two years or so. Then we shall see. While we\’re at it, more people should try living in the middle east.


  3. Obsever – I failed to get the full URL in my above comment. Don\’t know why.I encourage you to grab the full text of op-ed, \”Fukuda should not discourage friends of Japan\” while you still can from the Yomiuri\’s English language site.


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