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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (January 5, 2005)

China's Popularity Plummets in Japan

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

The statisticians, in their annual measure of national goodwill, have very bad news for Japanese and Chinese politicians, businessmen and the public. It's time to look to the new year, make resolutions and take steps for a better 2005.

According to the just-released annual Japanese government opinion survey, the number of Japanese people who feel affinity with China has fallen sharply, hitting an all-time low of 37.6%, This represents a dramatic 10.3-percentage-point drop from last year. The results are being seen as yet another indication that despite booming economic ties, Japan-China relations are in trouble. For more than three years Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has pursued a controversial China policy that has put Japanese neo-nationalism ahead of good political relations with Beijing, seriously straining bilateral ties.

The new poll findings demonstrate that Koizumi's risky strategy has undermined Japanese perceptions of the Middle Kingdom and might affect bilateral commerce in 2005. There are also strong indications that the Chinese public now views Japan much less favorably than before Koizumi came to power in April 2001.

The Japanese business community fears that the animosity generated by what some consider Koizumi's insensitive China policy could damage booming economic ties that are vital to both countries. Preliminary projections for 2004 estimate that China imported somewhere in the region of 7.6 trillion yen (US$73.4 billion) in goods from Japan. A frustrated Japanese businessman whose company is heavily involved in China told Asia Times Online, "Koizumi should be trying to help Japanese business, not make our lives more difficult by upsetting China. I worry that the nationalist flames he has fanned will get out of control."

Government officials says China's slump in the yearly Japanese Cabinet Office survey reflects the current poor state of Sino-Japanese relations and is the result of recent disputes, such as China's development of natural-gas fields in the East China Sea near Japan's disputed maritime boundary and Koizumi's contentious annual visits to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine.

Beijing sees the Yasukuni Shrine as the spiritual symbol of Japan's brutal wartime regime, viewing prime-ministerial patronage as unacceptable in the same way Israel would not tolerate German leaders visiting a Nazi memorial. The Chinese leadership has singled out Koizumi's shrine excursions as the main factor holding back bilateral political ties. Debate over the issue has aroused nationalist passions in both countries. Yasukuni is a memorial to Japan's war dead; 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined there as well.

Government officials also blame China's popularity nosedive on Chinese soccer fans' hostile jeering of the Japanese national team during the China-hosted Asia Cup soccer tournament this year. However, many Japanese reject this assessment. Hiroki Takeda, a university student and soccer enthusiast, said, "The bureaucrats' explanation sounds silly. The bad behavior you saw in China is common everywhere in the world where soccer is played. When Japan beat Russia in the World Cup, they attacked our embassy in Moscow. Besides, nobody in Japan really cared what the Chinese fans did because we beat China and won the Asia Cup." China's rowdy reaction to Japan's victory was mild in comparison with the reaction of losing-side soccer fans in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere.

Japanese media and nationalism harm China's image
The government-cited causes cannot fully explain China's ratings crash, which is worse than the 51.6% recorded in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square "incident" in which hundreds, maybe thousands of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators were attacked and killed by the People's Liberation Army. That was the lowest since the annual survey began in 1978. Now it's even worse.

The Japanese media, which have exaggerated the activities of a small number of Chinese criminals operating in Japan, and right-wing politicians, who have exploited anti-Chinese sentiment for political advantage, must also shoulder a very large portion of the blame for the very negative poll result (see Japan murder fuels false anti-China furor).

A businesswoman, who did not wish to be identified, said media stereotyping is seriously harming China's image. "I have been dealing with China for over 15 years and witnessed an incredible transformation in everything, from the way they do business to the way they look," she said. "China has become so sophisticated and modern, yet from the impression the Japanese media [have] been painting lately, you would think the entire country is made up of violent criminals who are lining up to come here to rob Japanese people."

Another important factor, which is much more difficult to quantify, is rising nationalist sentiment generated by North Korea's past abduction of Japanese citizens, a topic that dominates the Japanese media. There are growing indications that animosity directed at Pyongyang, China's longtime ally, is also hurting China because of recent bilateral tensions. Some analysts think this is the most alarming aspect of worsening public perceptions of China.

A senior Japanese diplomat explained the situation to Asia Times Online: "Unfortunately, the public's strong emotional reaction and anger about the North Korean abduction issue has begun to spill over on to China, and people are mixing up the two together. This confusion may partly be arising because both regimes are nominally communist. Recent tension with China is also definitely a factor."

He added, "This is not a good development, and it will cause problems in the future because illogical perceptions like this are very difficult to change. Furthermore, once an issue becomes driven by emotion, it becomes hard to approach it in a rational manner."

The situation is certain to deteriorate further if Koizumi makes another of his regular shrine forays in 2005, since this would produce a strong reaction from Beijing and be met by an equally robust response from the right-wing Japanese press.

Yasukuni policy backfires
Some think business considerations were among the factors that initially led Koizumi to start his contentious Yasukuni pilgrimages. He wanted to get nationalist elements within his own governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to support the economic reforms the business world was demanding. Playing the nationalist card seemed like the best way mollify this constituency. This strategy has dramatically backfired, and the shrine visits are now severely damaging Koizumi's standing with the business community.

Dr Christopher Pokarier, an associate professor of business at Waseda University, told Asia Times Online, "Koizumi needed the conservative and nationalist wings of the LDP on side if he was going to have any chance of implementing his economic-reform agenda. This is basically because these policies would damage the traditional support base of the LDP, so he had to give them something in return, and a good dose of nationalism seemed like the ideal remedy. Ironically, the economic situation has now moved on and issues like postal reform are not so important to business, while relations with China most definitely are."

The importance of good political dialogue in smoothing bilateral relations can best be illustrated in the Japan-US relationship, which regularly goes through rough patches, but unlike China, the United States remains popular. The most recent focus of US-Japan tension was the crash in August of a US Marine Corps helicopter on the campus of Okinawa International University. The US military turned down a request by the local police to join the on-site investigation into the crash, seriously offending residents and provoking strong protests. Despite this, two months later 71.8% of Japanese surveyed said they favored the United States in the annual government survey.

Some indirectly blame the US for China's current unpopularity. A prominent Japanese academic, who did not wished to be identified, said, "I feel US policymakers are just too focused on the Chinese economy, almost obsessively, and they are not paying enough attention to Japan and its legitimate security concerns about the growing military power of China. This makes Japanese people feel extra-uneasy about China. In fact, many ordinary people feel the US is ignoring the threat posed by China, and unless the US rectifies this position, people will continue to feel threaten by China."

Survey results may underestimate anti-Chinese feeling
Some commentators believe that the annual government poll actually underestimates the current level of anti-Chinese sentiment because it was conducted before tensions were heightened by the recent incursion of a Chinese submarine into Japanese territorial waters and the two frosty summit meetings between Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Hitoshi Urabe, a senior researcher at the Japanese Institute of Global Communications, said, "Japanese people's sentiment against China could only be assumed to be worse now than when the survey was carried out."

He explained, "The poll was conducted in October, before the Chinese nuclear submarine intruded into Japanese waters, for which China expressed only 'regret' at a press conference, without a formal apology to Japan. It was also before our Prime Minister Koizumi was 'scolded' by Chinese leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic [Cooperation] forum and then at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations."

The official survey findings are worrying enough, showing an unprecedented deterioration in friendly attitudes toward China. In 2003, 47.9% of Japanese felt close to China, compared with the present 37.6%, while those who felt negatively rose to 58.2% from last year's 48%.

Back in 1980, China enjoyed a positive rating of 78.6% and during the 1980s the figured hovered at about 70% until the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident knocked it down to 51.6%. The figure remained around the 50% mark until this year's drastic tumble.

Urabe believes the Chinese leadership's criticism of Koizumi has generated a certain degree of nationalist passion. He commented, "It is true that there are many Japanese people who question Mr Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, but the prime minister being criticized publicly by the officials of another country, for whatever reason, is not an impressing sight for the people who collectively and in accordance with the rules of democracy chose him to lead the country."

China issues Yasukuni ultimatum
Whether the Japanese public like it or not, China's leaders have given Koizumi what amounts to an ultimatum: halt the shrine visits or seriously damage bilateral ties. At a summit meeting in November, President Hu Jintao told Koizumi, "The crux of the problem is that Japanese government leaders pay homage at the Yasukuni Shrine." Hu argued that if Koizumi visited the shrine in 2005, it would deeply offend Chinese people.

Because the traditional Chinese calendar runs on a 60-year cycle, the 60th anniversary of the ending of World War II, which occurs in 2005, is regarded as having an especially strong symbolic significance in Chinese eyes. Hu's message was reinforced when Koizumi subsequently met Premier Wen Jiabao, who delivered the same message.

Since the ultimatum was issued, Koizumi has been unusually silent about his intentions on visiting the shrine, though he has said he would seriously consider China's concerns. There has been fierce debate about whether he will visit Yasukuni in 2005. The business community has been putting pressure on Koizumi to halt the pilgrimages for the sake of Sino-Japanese economic links, while nationalist elements in his party and the right-wing press have been demanding that Koizumi continue to pay homage at the shrine. Neo-conservatives claim that to bow to Chinese pressure would be interpreted as a sign of weakness by Beijing. Foreign Ministry officials fret that a new foray would completely undermine their efforts to improve Japan-China relations.

If Koizumi decides to go, the timing of any visit will be critical. Were he to go at the beginning of the year as he did in 2004, he would in effect derail any prospect of improving ties in 2005. However, if he postponed his pilgrimage to near the end of the year, diplomats would at least have a chance to repair some of the current damage before the next clash.

Before Koizumi took up office, who could have imagined that the future shape of Sino-Japanese relations would revolve around an annual visit to a relatively obscure Shinto shrine? Yet Koizumi's decision on visiting the shrine has the power to damage long-term bilateral ties severely.

Recently there have been signs that Koizumi has begun to become alarmed about the nationalist genie he has let out of the bottle, especially his inability to control it. Logic would seem to dictate that he would refrain from visiting Yasukuni until after he has left office in 2006, but nationalism is not a logical force. Unforeseen events may push him into playing the nationalist card. If he does, the consequence for Sino-Japanese relations could be severe on both sides. In Japan, the already serious popularity slump for China could become grievous and harm political and economic ties.

Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 25 December 2004,, and is republished with permission.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications