Although the latest annual survey on Japan-China relations shows that the Chinese and Japanese public's views of each other's country have worsened, hope for improvement in such sentiment lies in direct interaction between the people of the two countries.
On Sept. 23, The Genron NPO released the results of the 12th Japan-China Joint Public Opinion Poll held between August and September, based on 1,000 valid responses from randomly selected Japanese and 1,587 responses from Chinese people. The purpose of the annual poll, held since 2005 when Japan-China relations were at their lowest level, is to monitor the state of mutual understanding and perceptions of the Japanese and Chinese public toward each other, and how their responses change over time.
This year's findings show that the views on Japan-China relations among Japanese and Chinese people, which have been showing some improvement in recent years, have once again worsened. Some 71.9 percent of the Japanese surveyed said the current relationship between the two countries is bad, unchanged from last year compared to the gradual but consistent decline it had been showing in recent years, while 78.2 percent of the Chinese surveyed expressed similar sentiments, up 11 points from last year.
Furthermore, 44.8 percent of the Japanese and 66.8 percent of the Chinese responded that the bilateral relationship had worsened this past year, and 34.3 percent of the Japanese and 50.4 percent of the Chinese said the relationship would likely deteriorate further in future. This figure comes despite the recent improvement in the political environment between the two countries, with meetings between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping resuming for the first time since 2014. This seeming contradiction is an indication that the number of people who remain doubtful about seeing any improvement in bilateral relations is increasing in both countries.
How the people of both countries view each other is greatly affected by the media, particularly television. But the key difference between the two countries is that while over 70 percent of the Chinese people believe the reporting by their country's media is "fair and objective," only 20 percent of the Japanese people think the same about their country's media. This means that the sentiment of the Chinese and Japanese people about each other's country depends largely on the degree of direct interaction between the people of the two countries as well as media coverage of each other.
The survey was conducted after and during major international meetings in Asia, such as the Group of Seven Summit in Ise-Shima, Japan, in May, and the Group of 20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, in early September. This year also saw heavy media coverage of China's activities in the South China Sea as well as around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Media coverage of these events no doubt affected the outcome of the survey.
The change in the trend of direct interaction between the people of the two countries is also affecting the survey results. While a record 5 million Chinese visited Japan in 2015 and over 3 million Chinese visited Japan in the first half of 2016, the number of Japanese visiting China continued to decline, with less than 2.5 million Japanese -- merely half of the number of Chinese visiting Japan -- visiting China in 2015.
Another notable change in this year's survey results is that more people are worried about the kind of action the two countries may take regarding security issues. While over 60 percent of the Chinese cite "views on history" and "Diaoyu Islands" as key reasons for their negative image of Japan, the figure itself has dropped seven points compared to last year. Instead, 48.8 percent cited "Japan is liaising with the United States to corral China" as a reason for their negative image of Japan, up seven points from the previous year.
Meanwhile, 64.6 percent of the Japanese surveyed cited "(Chinese) intrusions into territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands" and over 50 percent cited "feeling uneasy about China's coercive actions in the international community" as reasons for their negative impressions of China. Both of these reasons rose 20 points from the previous year. These results correlate with heavy media coverage of the presence of Chinese ships in disputed waters and the growing unease of many Japanese about China's activities in the seas near Japan around the time the survey was conducted.
What must be noted here is that such a sense of stagnation about the relationship is causing the public to harbor extreme sentiments regarding national security. For example, some 70 percent of the people from both countries said there are countries they consider a military threat, with Japan citing "North Korea" and "China," and China citing "Japan" and "the United States" as posing such threats.
What is more surprising is that over 60 percent of the Chinese believe a military clash may occur "in the next few years" or "future," up 20 points from the previous year and the first time the figure has exceeded 60 percent since the question was included in the survey in 2012. Meanwhile only about 30 percent of the Japanese feel such conflict may occur, highlighting the difference in perception between the Chinese and Japanese public regarding this issue.
While this year's survey shows that the issue of how the two nations view history remains a key point of contention between them, it also shows that the people are becoming more interested in how the two governments are acting on security issues. But at the same time, the situation has not given rise to a nationalistic conflict like in the past due to several factors.
The success of international conferences like G-7 and G-20, the meeting between heads of state, the emphasis on economic cooperation and the media coverage of such developments, are some reasons that have prevented a more nationalistic sentiment from developing among the people of Japan and China.
There is also the existence of "the silent majority" in China and Japan where nearly 70 percent of those surveyed say they are "worried" about worsening sentiment between the two countries, and that there is a "need for improvement." It must be noted, though, that more people are "worried" and less people see a "need for improvement" compared to the results of the previous year's survey.
The people of both countries are starting to realize that the problem of the Japan-China relationship stems from a conflict between two nations and efforts to resolve this conflict are currently at a crossroads. Asked what measures would be effective in improving bilateral relations, nearly 30 percent of all respondents cited "improving the cooperative relationship between the two countries" along with "improving trust in politics." Some 60 percent of respondents from both countries cited territorial disputes as an "issue preventing bilateral relations from improving," and the Chinese people also cited "the two governments have yet to establish a relationship of trust" as an issue.
Another development that can be observed from this year's survey is that people in Japan and China are beginning to consider direct interaction to improve the relationship. For example, over 60 percent of respondents from both countries said interaction on a private level was important, with 60 percent of the Chinese saying that private-level interaction between the two countries this past year was "active and good."
Asked what areas should work to improve interaction, the Chinese cited "interaction among media" as being most important, while 35.5 percent of the Japanese chose "private-level communication to resolve various issues and improve the relationship between the two countries," following "interaction through exchange students."
The Chinese chose "media exchange" as many people believe changes in media coverage will help alleviate the situation, while more Japanese chose "private-level communication" in the belief that this approach is more effective in changing public perceptions and government actions. Such changing perceptions among the general public reflect uncertainties as well as a realization that the two countries are at a stage where governments alone cannot improve the situation.
Another change in this year's survey results is the slight improvement in the Chinese people's perception of Japan due to the rising number of Chinese visitors. The number of Chinese visiting Japan has increased tenfold to 13.5 percent in this survey alone, compared to the 1.3 percent of Chinese who said they have visited Japan in 2005 when the survey started. The Chinese who have visited Japan in the past show different results from Chinese who have never visited the country, with 58.8 percent of the former respondents saying they have "good impressions of Japan" and 32.2 percent judging Japan-China relations to be "good." This compares to only 16 percent of the Chinese who haven't visited Japan saying they have a "good impression of Japan" and 11.4 percent saying the Japan-China relationship is "good."
Chinese people aged under 20 years old who rely heavily on the Internet as a source of information on Japan also have better impressions of Japan than other Chinese. These results indicate the importance of direct interaction, and the need for diversifying the sources of information in improving mutual understanding and improving relations.
People in both countries believe in the importance of improving the bilateral relationship, with 56.1 percent of Japanese citing "cooperation between China and Japan is important for the development and peace of Asia," and Chinese people citing Japan as an "important neighbor" (72.5 percent), and "important trade partners as the second- and third-largest economies" (58.9 percent) as reasons for believing improved bilateral relations to be important.
Meanwhile, asked which country was the most important in the world, 63.3 percent of the Japanese cited the United States. Among the Chinese, 35.7 percent cited Russia and 26.8 percent cited the United States. Only 7.8 percent of the Chinese named Japan as the most important and 7.4 percent of the Japanese named China as such.
The rising uncertainty over the strained relations between the two countries is due to the fact that people cannot envision the future of both nations as well as Asia as a whole. To overcome this, the need for private-level debate about why an improved relationship between Japan and China is important, and how to improve cooperative efforts between the two countries becomes all the more pressing.