Between the Unfamiliar and Important: National Sentiments and Japan-China Relations

Professor Kawashima Shin reads between the lines of perceived negative national sentiments and their impact in the relationship between Japan and China.

It is said that the focus of diplomacy since the twentieth century has been shifting to politics, the economy and gradually to sentiments. In democratic countries, national sentiments are an important basis for foreign policy. Implementing policies contrary to national sentiment is a great risk for governments. In non-democratic countries as well, national sentiment stems from propaganda from the government and political parties, yet can also be a factor of restraint for government policies.

Needless to say, national sentiments are a major restrictive factor in the relationship between Japan and China. In the 1980s, about 80% of Japanese nationals answered that China was a familiar country. Subsequently, Japanese sentiments toward China have changed greatly. Currently, about 80% of Japanese nationals answer that China is an unfamiliar country. Likewise, Chinese sentiments toward Japanese people are also negative. According to a survey conducted by the Genron NPO, Chinese sentiments toward Japanese people have improved slightly in recent years. This is thought to be because of Chinese travel to Japan and improved Japan-China relations. Nevertheless, more than 70% of Chinese nationals have negative sentiments toward Japan.

Although the national sentiments in the two countries are very negative, the top leaders of both countries seek to improve bilateral relations, which appears to run contrary to public opinion. Approval ratings for the Japanese Abe administration are comparatively high, about 50%. While approval ratings for the Chinese Xi Jinping administration are unclear, they are officially likely to be very high. It can be said that because the two administrations enjoy high approval ratings, they will be able to adopt a policy to improve bilateral relations. However, there is another important element.

As is clear from the survey conducted by the Genron NPO, when asked about the importance of bilateral relations as well as familiarity, the majority of Japanese and Chinese people responded that they were important. Japanese nationals answered that their relationship with China was important and Chinese nationals answered that their relationship with Japan was important. Although the two countries are unfamiliar to the people of both countries, they agree that bilateral relationships are mutually important, which is perhaps the greatest common measure. If this is the case, the direction of the two governments’ current policy of gradually seeking to improve bilateral relations after recent tense relations can be said to reflect the trends of public opinion in both countries.

Another important element is the generation gap in national sentiments in both countries, which is particularly noticeable on the Japanese side. To put it simply, Japanese people in their 60s show the worst sentiments toward China and Japanese people in their 20s show the best sentiments toward China. This can be clearly observed in “the Public Opinion Survey on Diplomacy” by the Cabinet Office. According to a survey conducted in the fall of 2017, 78% of Japanese nationals answered that China was an unfamiliar country or a rather unfamiliar country. Less than 19% of Japanese nationals answered that China was a familiar country or a rather familiar country. These figures improved slightly compared with 2016, but the survey results show that Japanese nationals overwhelmingly embrace negative sentiments toward China.

By generation, a little over 84% of people in their 60s answered that China was an unfamiliar country or a rather unfamiliar country and just 13% answered that China was a familiar country or a rather familiar country. In contrast, 68% of respondents in their 20s (from 18 to 29 years old) responded negatively and 31% of them responded positively. This shows that younger Japanese have conciliatory sentiments toward China, which is also the case with people in their 30s to 50s. Why do younger Japanese nationals embrace positive sentiments toward China? Generally, people in their 60s were born in the 1950s and grew up during Japan’s period of high-speed economic growth. In terms of Japan-China relations, Japan was overwhelmingly privileged for most of their lives. In contrast, things are the exact opposite for people in their 20s today.

Interestingly, many of these younger Japanese are relatively supportive of the Abe administration. This does not necessarily mean that they support the Abe administration because it is conservative, but with resignation, because there are no other options. The fact that younger Japanese nationals, many of whom support the Abe administration, embrace relatively positive sentiments toward China may not necessarily be the faction that support the Abe administration’s recent conciliatory policy toward China. However, the accord in that direction may indicate that approval ratings for the Abe administration will not drop sharply.

Note: This article is reprinted from “川岛真:国民感情和日中关系,” 联合早报/Lianhe Zaobao, March 27, 2018, with the permission of both the author and Lianhe Zaobao.

Kawashima Shin is a professor at the University of Tokyo.

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