Having friends in both China and Japan, I have often been asked to explain both sides’ actions since the Diaoyu/Senkakus crisis began in September 2012. For example, my Chinese friends cannot understand why the Abe government is so “stubborn” and isn’t willingly trying to repair relations with China, while my Japanese friends wonder the same thing about the Chinese government.
A recent survey of Chinese and Japanese citizens views of each other’s countries helps shed light on these issues. The results of the survey could provide answers to the questions of my friends.
This survey, which was commissioned by the Japanese think tank Genron NPO and China Daily, asked 1,805 Japanese citizens and 1,540 Chinese citizens about their views of the other country.
The survey found that 92.8 percent of Chinese respondents hold unfavorable views of Japan, a startling 28 percent rise from the year before. Similarly, 90.1 percent of respondents in Japan had an unfavorable or relatively unfavorable view of China, compared with 84.3 percent last year. For both countries, these figures were higher than in the previous nine annual surveys conducted.
To no one’s surprise, the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands was the most common reason respondents in both countries gave for their negative impressions. Specifically, 77.6 percent of the Chinese respondents and 53.2 percent of the Japanese surveyed listing the island dispute as a source of their animosity.
The next most common answers had to do with historical grievances. 63.8 percent of Chinese, for example, cited “Japan’s lack of a proper apology and remorse over the history of invasion of China” as one of the reasons they hold negative views of Japan. On the other hand, “Chinese criticism of Japan over historical issues” was the second most commonly selected answer by Japanese respondents.
Views about the future are even bleaker. For instance, the pollsters asked whether the respondents believed there would a military conflict between China and Japan in the future. A striking 52.7 percent of Chinese respondents and 23.7 percent of their Japanese counterparts said that there will be a military conflict at some point in the future.
These findings are both alarming and disturbing. One’s hard pressed to find another modern example of two countries possessing such negative attitudes toward each other, especially between two major powers. Leaders, of course, don’t necessarily have to be a weather vane for public opinion. Still, when crafting policy towards a foreign country, they can hardly disregard the fact that 90 percent of their citizens hold a negative viewpoint towards it. Understandably, then, neither the Chinese or Japanese governments have been especially eager to take the necessarily steps to mend ties.
The survey was not all bad news, however. For one thing, elite opinion in both countries tended to be much more positive than the public at large, with 52.8 percent of Chinese elites and 36.3 percent of Japanese elites saying that they viewed the other country positively. Majorities in both countries agreed or somewhat agreed that Japan and China should cooperate on issues in East Asia. Additionally, despite the level of negativity on both sides, over 72 percent of Chinese respondents and over 74 percent of Japanese surveyed said that the bilateral relationship was important.
The results of this joint survey no doubt provide us with rich data to better understand the bilateral relationship. This is crucial as gaining a better understanding of why relations are so strained is the first step to improving them. As long as both sides remain ignorant of the other country’s perspective and the reasons behind it, finding a solution will remain impossible.
For example, if the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute is the biggest source of tension, then each side must learn why the other side so strongly believes that the islands belong to them. The same goes for historical grievances as well.
Unfortunately, even though the war between China and Japan ended almost 70 years ago, and the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkakus has lasted for more than four decades, ordinary Chinese and Japanese still know very little about each other’s opinions on these two issues. Indeed, only 60 percent of Japanese respondents and a mere 40 percent of Chinese ones were aware of the Peace and Friendship Treaty their countries signed 35 years ago.
As a first step, the two societies as well as the international community should really pay heed to the survey’s dangerous results. The media of both countries should extensively report and discuss this alarming survey. Scholars of the two countries who study the bilateral relationship have a special responsibility to help both the leaders and general public understand the real perspectives of the other side and the reasons for the huge perception gap, especially at the time when the current political and public opinion atmosphere does not allow the two governments to sit down and talk.
So long as this cycle of mutual ignorance and demonization continues, any efforts for genuine and lasting rapprochement will remain elusive.
This article originally appeared August 26, 2013 in The Diplomat.