Japanese public’s unease about U.S.-Japan relationship grows, but so does support for efforts to preserve it

Tobias Harris
January 30, 2017

When U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives in Japan on February 3, he will have to provide reassurance to an ally whose people are increasingly worried that Japan will not be able to rely on the U.S. as it has in the past. A new round of public opinion polls shows that public anxiety about the future of the U.S.-Japan relationship has worsened since Trump was inaugurated on January 20. In fact, in a Kyodo News poll 83.8% of respondents said that the new president’s “America First” policy has led them to worry about international instability.

The results of the recent polls – from the Nikkei Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun as well as Kyodo – show that many Japanese expect the U.S.-Japan relationship will worsen. For example, Yomiuri found that 70% expect great uncertainty in the relationship going forward, an increase of twelve points since a poll taken shortly after the U.S. election in November. Nikkei and Kyodo found that 53% and 54.6% of respondents respectively expect the relationship to worsen; only 6% and 4.5% respectively expect improvement. Yomiuri also found that 70% expect that the new U.S. administration will negatively impact Japan’s economy.

However, just because the Japanese public expects the relationship to worsen does not mean that voters will not support a bid by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to find common ground with the Trump administration. Overall, Yomiuri found that 60% believe that the relationship should be maintained, virtually unchanged since November. Meanwhile, there is considerable support for pursuing a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. According to Nikkei, 42% of respondents think that a free trade or economic partnership agreement is worth pursuing (another 26% still would prefer the U.S. in the Trans-Pacific Partnership); 52.6% of Kyodo respondents accept the desirability of a U.S.-Japan bilateral agreement. There is virtually no support for raising Japan’s share of the burden of hosting U.S. forces in Japan – only 5% told Nikkei that they support this option – but 57% support the current level of support. When Abe goes to Washington for a meeting with Trump on February 10, he will have a mandate to find ways to work with the new president despite his campaign-trail rhetoric about Japan taking advantage of the U.S. security guarantee, and comments since inauguration about the “unfair” trade in automobiles between the U.S. and Japan.

Finally, the new polls once again reinforce the notion that Abe’s own political standing has benefited from international instability. In the Nikkei opinion poll, the prime minister’s approval rating rose slightly from 64% to 66%, and in the Kyodo poll it rose nearly five points to 59.6%. The way ahead is not without pitfalls for Abe but for the time being he will likely continue to enjoy a virtuous cycle whereby stability engenders more support which engenders more stability, in stark contrast to most of Japan’s peers in the G7. Abe could also be helped by the prospect of more infighting within the opposition Democratic Party, the approval ratings of which continue to languish in the single digits.



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