Mutual Distrust: Japanese Views on South Korea



A while back, we documented the results of an Asan Institute poll that showed South Koreans viewed Japan and its PM Abe Shinzo about as favorably as North Korea and Kim Jong-Un. Turning to a couple recent polls on Japanese public perceptions towards South Korea, we see – perhaps not surprisingly – that the sour mood is mutual.

First, a Sankei Shimbun/FNN public opinion survey released in mid-November found that nearly 70% of respondents can not trust South Korea as an economic and diplomatic partner. History issues have been one of the points of contention between the two countries, and Japanese respondents didn't show much sympathy with South Korean claims. 80% of respondents opposed Japanese companies paying reparations for forcibly conscripted Korean labor during WWII. A plurality were also open to revising the 1993 Kono Statement, which acknowledges the direct role of the Imperial Japanese military in exploiting Korean “comfort women”.

However, the Sankei poll does little to put the relationship in perspective. A long-term time series on Japanese perceptions can be found in the recent 2013 release of the Japanese Cabinet Office’s annual Public Opinion Survey on Diplomatic Relations, which has been conducted annually since 1978. Respondents are asked “Do you feel close with [country]” and other similar questions for a number of diplomatic partners, and we have reproduced data regarding South Korea below.

From the Japanese side, these indeed appear to be extraordinary times considering the previous decade. Between 1978-1998, negative Japanese assessments out-polled positive ones, but Japanese perceptions have improved steadily over the 2000s (interrupted by an uptick in tensions in 2006 over the Dokdo /Takeshima issue). In 2012, however, perceptions on South Korea suffered an unprecedented collapse. That huge drop is most likely a reaction to the October poll’s proximity to President Lee’s visit to Dokdo in August 2012, an effect we can see more clearly in panelized month-to-month polling. October 2013 results reveal that negative popular sentiment towards South Korea (58%) now hovers around all-time lows.

But does Japanese public sentiment basically mirror Koreans, or do views diverge? We can offer a rough glimpse of comparable opinions over a decade by overlaying the Japan Cabinet Office survey with a reoccurring survey on South Korean opinion conducted by EAI. These surveys are not perfectly comparable: polling methodology and question phrasing differ, and the annual EAI surveys are conducted in different months than Japan’s Cabinet Office polls. Nonetheless, as evidenced below public opinion in the two countries trends similarly over time. However Korean views on Japan are decidedly more negative, with a consistent difference of roughly 10%.

Unfortunately, the only place where we may have seen the largest deviation between perceptions – 2007 – is not reported in the EAI survey, but Pew Research survey on Global Attitudes conducted April-May 2007 puts South Korean favorability towards Japan at an abysmal 25%. (Not surprisingly, the survey was taken right after Abe’s denial that Korean comfort women were coerced into sexual slavery, and Japan’s favorability rebounded to 47% in the following year.)

Public opinion surveys are a blunt instrument in our understanding of complicated regional relationships, and we caution against reading too much into this. From what we can glean, timing appears to matter greatly, and it is sobering to see that reactionary dips in both country’s public opinion have made quick turnarounds in the past. However, it remains unsettling that Japan-Korea public sentiment appears extremely fragile. With unresolved historical, diplomatic, and security issues mounting, opening old wounds is increasingly effective at turning public opinion on a dime.

Thank you to Euijin Jung for research assistance.

More From

More on This Topic

Related Topics