Amid Tumultuous Regional Relations, US-Japan Partnership Polling High


When outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed incoming Japan Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to Washington for the first time in his new official capacity on January 18, 2013, both officials highlighted the US-Japan relationship and the alliance in particular, as a “cornerstone” of US engagement in Asia and Japan’s foreign policy respectively. While some experts have questioned whether such words still ring true as they debate the relative influence of both nations in the face of a rising China, opinion polls of Americans and Japanese in 2012 show that the public believes the partnership is as important as ever.

Japan expert from the Center of Strategic and International Studies, Mike Green describes a “disconnect” between the Washington DC based politico-policy community, and the rest of the country. In his commentary on American Views of Asia and the Future of the US Japan Alliance from results of the 2012 Chicago Council Survey on American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy, he explains:

“Where many inside the Beltway see a rapidly rising and threatening China and a hopelessly drifting Japan, Americans elsewhere seem to appreciate that China’s rising power is not necessarily a threat, that Japan continues to be a powerful and trusted ally, and that more can be done to cement our relationship with Japan and the region through strengthening alliances and promoting trade.”

When asked to directly compare Japan and China in terms of importance to US strategic interests, 70% responded that China was more important than Japan. However Green pointed out that Americans currently perceive Japan and China very differently. The same poll reports that 80% consider Japan a partner, not a rival, opposed to only 48% who felt the same toward China. This sentiment has improved over time as well, in 2006 only 73% polled considered the US and Japan as “mostly partners.” In trade 56% view Japan as among America’s top 10 trading partners and the majority consider it to be a “fair trader,” in stark contrast to the 1990s when only 17% thought so.

(Click to Enlarge) American views of Japan as a dependable friend and ally, and the maintanence of the US-Japan security treaty, from the 2012 US image of Japan opinion poll.

These results were echoed in other annual polls of American sentiment toward Japan. In the annual U.S. Image of Japan poll, conducted by Gallop on behalf of the Japanese government, 50% of the general population respondents named Japan as America’s most important partner in the region, just one year after China edged out Japan for the title. This was the highest share in over ten years of polling, with the good state of political and general ties between the US and Japan named as the top reason. The 2012 poll also showed no change from the previous year’s record 84% of American respondents considering Japan to be a dependable ally and friend. Amid growing strategic tensions in the Asia-Pacific and defense spending debates at home, the survey for the first time asked Americans to rate the importance of the presence of US military forces in Japan to the security of the United States- 81% considered American military presence in Japan to be important.

(Click to Enlarge) Chart of the Japanese positive view of the US and Americans 2006-2012

In Japan meanwhile, the perception of the United States remains favorable. The results of the 2012 Pew Global Attitudes poll on Japan’s view of Americans and the US might not be as high as the previous year’s results (the survey in 2011 was conducted on the heels of the joint US-Japan relief mission: Operation Tomodachi), they reflect and overall positive opinion. Of the nations polled, that Japanese had the second most positive image of the US at 72% (after Italy). Their view of Americans was even higher; at 82% it was the highest among the participating countries. The Japanese also had the highest opinion of American democracy, and the spread of American ideas and customs.

(Click to enlarge) Chart of Japanese attitudes toward foreign countries in 2012, and feelings of friendship toward the US 2001-2012 from 2012 Japan Cabinet Office Diplomacy Poll

Despite last year’s record support for United States as a friend and partner among the Japanese population, the view of the US in Japan’s international relations has actually improved over the past year. According to the annual foreign relations poll issued by Japan’s cabinet office, feelings of friendship among the Japanese people toward the United States reached an all-time high 85% in 2012. The same poll reflected major shifts in opinion over Japan’s regional neighbors. Positive feelings toward strategic partners such as India and ASEAN rose as views of the relations with its closest neighbors dropped precipitously. Feelings of friendship with South Korea fell from 62% to 39% in one year, while now a record low of 18% professed feelings of amity toward China in light of recent tensions.

While politics and policy continue to be discussed in Washington and Tokyo and the US and Japan attempt to determine the best way to address mutual challenges of economics, demographics, and security, the polls show that at least among the public, there is a high degree of friendship, and a feeling of trust in the relationship between the two countries.