Polls show Japanese public’s deepening distrust of China

Tobias Harris
September 8, 2016

An earlier version of this article appeared in China File as part of a larger discussion with experts around the world. View that version, and the opinions of others who contributed to the conversation, here.


senkakuWhile anti-Japan sentiment in China has drawn considerable attention as a possible factor constraining Beijing’s Japan policy, less attention has been paid to deepening anti-China sentiment in Japan as a factor shaping Japan’s China policy and its politics.

A poll published by the Nikkei Shimbun, Japan’s leading financial newspaper, on August 28 illustrates what could be described as the Japanese public’s “reflexive distrust” of China. The poll asked respondents about China’s recent incursions around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands:

“There have been successive cases of Chinese ships entering Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku islands in Okinawa Prefecture. On the one hand, the government has protested against the penetration of territorial waters but on the other hand its policy is to seek dialogue with China. What do you think of this?” (Author’s translation)

Fifty-five percent said the government should “take a stronger position,” compared with 37% who believed the government should “stress more dialogue.”

Broader surveys of Japanese attitudes towards China show that hostility has hardened. For example, the FY2015 edition of the Cabinet Office’s annual poll regarding Japan’s foreign relations found that for the fourth straight year more than 80% of respondents said they have little or no affinity for China. Over the past decade an ever-smaller share of Japanese citizens have been willing to admit to positive feelings about China. The 2015 edition of the joint Japan-China public opinion survey co-sponsored by Japanese think tank Genron NPO showed even less affinity for China: 89% said they viewed China unfavorably, compared with only 11% who viewed it favorably.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] It is perhaps encouraging that Japanese attitudes towards China are driven by China’s actions, not its fundamental qualities. Moreover, there are signs that the Japanese people continue to hope for better relations with China.    [/perfectpullquote]

The Genron NPO poll shows that the main drivers of Japanese hostility are the intractable issues that have divided the two governments: 55% cited China’s criticism of Japan over historical issues; 53% named China’s “selfish” quest for resources; 48% named China’s disregard for international rules; and 46% cited the territorial dispute in the East China Sea.

It is perhaps encouraging that Japanese attitudes towards China are driven by China’s actions, not its fundamental qualities. Moreover, there are signs that the Japanese people continue to hope for better relations with China. When asked what should be discussed at a bilateral summit, the by-far most popular response (44%) among Japanese respondents was “a broad ranging discussion on how to improve relations between both countries.”

At the same time, however, while Japanese citizens appear to want better relations with China, they also are pessimistic about the outlook for the Sino-Japanese relationship. While a plurality (43%) expect relations will still be the same, a quarter (25%) expect the relationship to worsen, nearly twice as many as respondents who expect it will improve (13%). Meanwhile, 58% said they “wish to have peaceful coexistence and prosperity” but are “not sure if they will be realized.” Finally, given that the issues driving Japanese hostility—history issues, China’s search for resources abroad, and its dispute with Japan—are all issues on which Beijing is either unwilling or unable to change course, there is little reason to expect the Japanese public to view China more favorably in the coming years.

The Japanese public’s suspicions of China are unmistakably shaping the context in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other officials function, especially given the decline of the so-called “China school” in Japan’s foreign ministry and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which played an important role maintaining formal and informal ties with Beijing. Instead, Japanese leaders increasingly have little to lose from “standing up” to China in disputes. This does not guarantee conflict, but the hardening of Japanese attitudes towards China will make it more difficult to resolve fundamental disputes and devote attention to building a more constructive relationship.





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