Matthew Linley is an Assistant Professor at Temple University, Japan.
The past few months have seen a number of problems in the Japan-China relationship. Numerous commentators cite the dispute over the Senkaku Islands and the re-election of Shinzo Abe as prime minister as reasons to predict a worsening of relations in the coming year. The recent request by the Abe Cabinet for a US$2.4 billion equipment upgrade to strengthen border defences suggests a harder line on its territorial disputes with China.
But what about the Japanese public? After all, Japan is a democracy so we should expect politicians to respond at least minimally to what citizens think, either for idealistic reasons or more likely to survive the next electoral cycle.
While foreign policy remains an elitist sphere of policymaking and generally of little interest to voters, the public cannot be completely disregarded, as anyone familiar with the US-Japan Security Treaty negotiations of 1960 knows. For a Japanese prime minister, having the public on his side means one less worry when building a consensus on difficult decisions.
So what does the Japanese public think about China in 2013? To answer this question, it is useful to turn to the Japan Cabinet Office's annual survey on public opinion about foreign policy, released in November 2012 (sample size of 1912 respondents, conducted in October 2012). The graph above shows the Japanese public's affinity for China between 1978 and 2012.
It's hard to believe that in 1980 approximately 80% of respondents said they had an affinity for China. Today, it is below 20%. The most striking trend is the steady decrease in affinity (and increase in no affinity) for China since 1985. Although the mid-1990s to early 2000s saw the Japanese public evenly divided, friendly feelings towards China dropped sharply — almost 30 percentage points — from 2003 to 2012. Overall, the data indicate that, despite increasing economic interdependence between the two countries, public opinion in Japan has increasingly worsened.
Next, consider the data only from 2012. The next table examines respondents from varying levels of city scales. Since the ruling LDP traditionally has close ties to rural voters, we should expect the views of respondents in more rural parts of the country to matter:
The data show that differences among respondents from different parts of the country are very small. However, the greatest percentage of respondents (84.1%) who said they have no affinity for China were from towns and villages (which we can use as an indicator of 'rural Japan'). The city scale with the smallest percentage of respondents saying they had no affinity for China, meanwhile, was in medium-sized cities (79.7%). The gap between rural and urban citizens is not very large but the data do indicate what might be a significant difference.
Lastly, let's look at differences among age groups. In Japan, as in other societies, older citizens turn out to vote more than their younger counterparts, so their views are important to politicians. This last table shows the Japanese public's feelings toward China by age:
We see here a rather large difference in respondents who have no affinity for China. While the percentage of respondents in this category was well over 65% for all groups, 84.2% of respondents in their seventies and over had no affinity with China compared to 68.3% of respondents in their twenties, a gap of 15.9 percentage points. Looking at the broader pattern, the data indicate that older Japanese feel less affinity for China than do their younger counterparts.
To summarise this rather limited examination of the data, the average percentage of Japanese with affinity for China was 18% while the mean for those with no affinity was 80.6%. The percentage of respondents with affinity for China has steadily decreased over time, more rapidly over the past ten years. At the moment at least, far more Japanese citizens have unfriendly feelings towards China than those with friendly feelings. Citizens from rural areas seem to have slightly less friendly views of China than those in other parts of the country while older citizens have significantly more unfriendly views of China than younger citizens.
Does any of this have a direct effect on foreign policy? No, but it does suggest that Shinzo Abe's recent move to increase Japan's security budget is unlikely to face much opposition from the public. In fact, he may find that older voters and those from rural areas — two vital constituencies — will be quite supportive. He may find it easier to push through policies than if China was viewed as positively as it was in 1980.
So while Abe certainly faces limits on his foreign policy towards China (the constitution, the US, his cabinet, his coalition party, his own party, the upper house of the Diet, the mass media, opinion leaders) he may at least not have to spend too much political capital convincing the Japanese public of the necessity for a stronger stance towards a country it once viewed as a friend.