Japan just as invisible as always

MOFA has released its latest Gallup-conducted poll of American public and elite attitudes concerning Japan. (English summary here; more detailed Japanese documents available for download here.)

Gallup conducted a telephone poll of 1500 Americans over age 18 in February and March of 2008, and telephone interviews with 250 “opinion leaders” in “the fields of government, business, academia, mass media, religion and labor unions.”

The results are more or less unchanged. Both the public and elites view Japan as the most important US partner in Asia, with China trailing by roughly ten points among the public and twenty points among elites. Japan is still seen as a dependable ally, although the number among the public dropped seven points from 74% to 67%, even as the elite figure remained strong, improving one point to a record-high of 92%. Both public and elite see Japan as more of an economic power, and believe that the US-Japan relationship is sound, and will either improve in the future or remain just as sound as they think it is today. Elites are well disposed to Japan playing a more assertive role internationally, and have a stronger sense of shared values between the US and Japan than the public at large has.

Of interest to me, however, is that in every question that gave general public respondents the option of “don’t understand/no opinion,” that response gained. In the “dependable ally” question, the percentage of the general public answering “no opinion” rose from 5% to 15%. Asked whether Japan is playing an appropriate international role given its economic power, the percentage of the general public answering “don’t understand” rose from 6% to 14%. Asked about the importance of US bases in Japan, the number of general public respondents with no opinion rose from 3% to 11%. The number who responded “don’t understand” when asked whether the US should support the current US-Japan mutual security treaty more than doubled, from 7% to 15%. And I suspect that these numbers probably only measure those who are willing to admit that they either don’t understand or have no opinion. How many American citizens have opinions about these questions before being asked by a pollster?

In short, Japan became that much less familiar to the American public from February-March 2007 to February-March 2008. Interestingly, when general public respondents were asked where they get information about Japan, every category but education (improved one point from 51% to 52%), friends and neighbors (improved one point from 29% to 30%), Japanese friends (held steady at 29%), and experience of visiting Japan (held steady at 12%) fell. The big four — TV, magazines, newspapers, and Internet — all fall. TV fell from 80% to 74%, magazines from 72% to 64%, newspapers from 71% to 63%, and Internet 43% to 39%. The impact of these drops are magnified by the paucity of Japan coverage (i.e., not only are the news media providing less Japan coverage, but fewer people are seeing what little they cover). The drops were less significant or non-existent in terms of the elite, but elite awareness of Japan still suffers from the spareness of Japan coverage.

The survey ought to include a question along the lines of “did you have any opinions about the US-Japan relationship before being asked these questions.” It might also have been helpful to ask about public awareness of events that transpired in the relationship over the past year (political changes in Japan, the abductee problem, the comfort women resolution, etc.). Without asking these questions, there is no context for these responses. This doesn’t say much about what the American people think about the US-Japan relationship in comparison to a host of other foreign policy issues and bilateral relationships.

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