The Japanese NGO Genron NPO and the China International Publishing Group have released the results of their annual Japan-China Joint Public Opinion Poll. This poll is well known for its 17-year history and is attracting global attention.
One result that has caught people’s eye this year is the worsening of Chinese public sentiment towards Japan. Although improving in recent years, with 45% of those polled in 2020 expressing a positive impression of Japan, it has dropped to 32% this year while negative impressions of Japan has risen from 53% to 66%. Japanese public sentiment towards China, however, has changed little, with positive impressions of China falling from 10% to 9% and negative impressions rising from 90% to 91%. The rise in negative impressions from the Chinese side stems from issues like territorial disputes, perceptions of history, and remarks and behaviours of politicians.
As for opinions on current Japan-China relations, public sentiment has changed little in Japan, while negative impressions in China has risen from 23% to 43%.
Sightseeing provides numerous opportunities for Chinese and Japanese people to interact directly with each other and the disappearance of this opportunity could have affected Chinese people’s impression of Japan in particular.
The survey is limited to Japan-China relations and so cannot provide comparisons with other nations, but the following factors can be viewed as reasons why Chinese perceptions towards Japan have worsened.
First, Chinese public sentiment towards Japan improved prior to the pandemic with the rise of Chinese tourism to Japan, and Chinese tourists sharing positive social media posts and messages about Japan, but the Covid-19 pandemic has caused the number of tourists to plummet. Sightseeing provides numerous opportunities for Chinese and Japanese people to interact directly with each other and the disappearance of this opportunity could have affected Chinese people’s impression of Japan in particular.
Second, interactions between heads of state were not particularly active, even online, and so cooperative projects saw no tangible progress. This contrasts with the US and China, which seek to work together on issues like climate change. While then Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping did talk over the phone, one-off summits have a limited impact on public opinion.
Third, comments and opinions in each country’s internet space have displayed nationalistic tendencies during the Covid-19 pandemic, while in China, fanatic discussions and comments involving topics like perceptions towards historical issues and territorial disputes are prominent.
This survey shows how much the Chinese trust Chinese media, and the considerable impact of Chinese media outlets on domestic audiences. Japanese people, on the other hand, place little trust in Japanese media.
Fourth, China's domestic propaganda policy and the voice of Chinese media are contributing factors. For example, Chinese media coverage criticising security cooperation between Japan and the US, Japanese plans to discharge contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, and Japan offering AstraZeneca vaccines to Taiwan, is spreading extremely negative information about Japan. This survey shows how much the Chinese trust Chinese media, and the considerable impact of Chinese media outlets on domestic audiences. Japanese people, on the other hand, place little trust in Japanese media.
Last is the US-China conflict in international space. To the Chinese, the Japanese are taking sides with the US amid rising China-US tensions. Statements from Japanese politicians about the Taiwan issue are also widely publicised in China. In this survey, issues with regards to perceptions of history and territorial disputes are definitely contributing factors towards the worsening impressions of Japan.
However, the survey has more to offer than pessimistic results on Japan-China relations. For example, when asked whether Japan-China relations are important, 67% of Japanese people said yes, compared to 64% from last year. That number is falling in China, but 71% still felt that relations are important. People recognise its importance because they are neighbouring countries with strong economic ties.
Sentiments may be low, but both countries value their mutual relationship, so there is no simple answer.
Also, the percentage of Japanese responding that Japan should stand with the US in a US-China conflict has risen from 14% to 22%, and the percentage of people who responded that Japan should better manage the US-China conflict and promote cooperation between Japan and China has remained at 34%. When asked whether Japan should focus on the US in a US-China conflict, 25% responded yes, while 55% responded that Japan should favour neither and instead work towards developing international cooperation.
Hence, it can be seen that the number of Japanese respondents saying that Japan should continue to cooperate with China has remained high. However, while both countries continue to place an emphasis on economic ties, the Chinese see economic relations with Japan as mutually beneficial while the Japanese tend to see it as competitive.
Results from this poll show a general worsening of the Chinese people’s opinion towards Japan, but this survey also reveals an extraordinarily complex relationship between Japan and China. Sentiments may be low, but both countries value their mutual relationship, so there is no simple answer. These poll results offer a reminder of the dangers of simplifying national sentiments and making assumptions without first understanding these complex feelings.
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