The futility of Japan’s global popularity

The BBC has released its annual survey of global attitudes, revealing once again that Japan is one of the most positively rated countries among those surveyed.

Jun Okumura provides a good wrap-up of the report’s findings on Japan here.

As in years past, the survey found that Japan is viewed favorably in just about every country surveyed except for China and South Korea.

While nationalism and historical issues may partly explain the negative findings, I suspect that the negativity in Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea — negativity that goes both directions — correlates with the density of those relationships. Thanks to proximity, the bilateral agendas are crowded with thorny, intractable problems that are regularly exacerbated by the behavior of one or both governments. This dynamic also contributes to Russia’s low rating in Japanese eyes (15% mostly positive, 34% mostly negative). (And Russia’s favorable view of Japan shows that most Russians aren’t particularly attuned to their country’s Far East.)

Of course, it is not particularly surprising that the dense, messy relationships in Northeast Asia have given rise to negative feelings towards the others. (40% of South Korean respondents viewed China favorably, compared with 50% who viewed it negatively.) What I’m interested in is what this says about the prospects for Japan’s ambitions to play a greater global role, whether in political, economic, or security terms.

Some might argue that Japan’s high favorable ratings are a source of soft power, the basis for Japan’s extending its influence abroad. But I would argue that it’s likely that the more Japan reached abroad, the less favorable it would seem and the less soft power it would possess. Not coincidentally, the one region in which Japan is especially active — Northeast Asia — is home to negative feelings about Japan. Not surprisingly, Japan is viewed favorably in regions where it is known mostly for its money and its culture. Thanks to Japan’s economic problems and China’s economic rise, Japan’s money isn’t nearly the negative it was at the height of the bubble. (Indeed, as during the Meiji period, Japan is shielded from negative attention from abroad by China, a much more attractive target for empire then and foreign criticism now.)

Japan simply lacks the dense, complicated relations, relations that entangle publics, that have contributed to antagonism with South Korea and China. Japan remained popular even in countries like Australia (where its popularity increased) and Britain, where media coverage of Japan over the past year focused on whaling, and the US and Canada, where history issues were on the agenda over the past year in the form of comfort women relations. (Although Japan’s popularity in Canada did fall thirteen percentage points.) It turns out that these issues are a concern for an exceedingly narrow segment of educated public opinion.

So chalk this up as a success for Japan’s low-posture foreign policy, which has become even lower thanks to Japan’s shrinking ODA budget. (LDP HR member Yamauchi Koichi frets about Japan’s declining ODA here, at his blog.) Japan is well-liked because it is mostly invisible and entirely harmless to most of the countries surveyed. A more active Japan, a Japan that took sides in important international disputes, would likely be less popular.

What does all this international goodwill actually do for Japan? Does it make Japan any more likely to succeed in trade negotiations? Does it make Japanese permanent membership in the UN Security Council any more likely? Does global goodwill yield any soft power for Japan?

2 thoughts on “The futility of Japan’s global popularity

  1. Anonymous

    I would contend that that MOFA and the rest of the GoJ has had a conscious and planned strategy of becoming invisible since the mid-90s.Japan\’s elites did not enjoy the scrutiny of the 80s and early 90s. Too many questions, too many uncomfortable answers, and too many people studying Japan.Japan investment remains massive in the US, but more strategic and quiet. Its scientific, political, and economic espionage remains high, but the Bush Admin stopped all investigations. GOJ\’s funding of things Japanese continues but with a tight hand and specific outcomes. The era of experimentation is over. The recent interest in \”restocking the pond\” in Washington of suitable Japan experts is a very careful and controlled exercise.I think that Japan has worked hard and successfully to keep out of the spotlight. The shadows are now wider, deeper making those who ask ordinary questions look odd and misguided.Princess

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  2. Anonymous

    \”Japan investment remains massive in the US, but more strategic and quiet. Its scientific, political, and economic espionage remains high, but the Bush Admin stopped all investigations. GOJ\’s funding of things Japanese continues but with a tight hand and specific outcomes. \”Could we have somekind of materials that backsup your argument,Princess?I don\’t think there are no such plans like \”strategy of becoming invisible\”,just like those all-mighty \”agents of influence\”suppose to protect Japan from the wrath of Japan bashers never existed.But then again,keeping low profile on everything and anything is the best way to avoid bullying from foreignersAceface

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