How Should We Interpret Joint Japan-South Korea Opinion Survey Results?

July 15, 2014

By Yasushi Kudo,
president of The Genron NPO

The Japan-South Korea joint opinion poll has two aims. Like the similar joint opinion survey The Genron NPO has been regularly conducting in cooperation with its Chinese partner over the past nine years, this survey is aimed at making clear how the peoples of Japan and South Korea understand each other. Another aim is to provide materials for the peoples and citizens of Japan and South Korea so that they can calmly analyze the situation in each other's country. I'd like to explain three tendencies, which have been brought to light in the wake of the latest survey.

Dependence on media for knowledge

First of all, let me refer to the basic structure of mutual understanding between the peoples of Japan and South Korea. The situation for this structure has changed little from the survey last year. First, opportunities for Japanese and South Korean people to have direct contacts with each other, such as visits to each other's country and communication with acquaintances, are limited. As a result, many of them depend on the news reporting of media organizations, especially TV news reporting, in the respective countries to acquire knowledge and build understanding of each other's country.

Therefore, the understanding of the two countries' peoples is not properly engaged with each other, even as regards the same news. Then, public opinion tends to be formed in a manner that may fuel criticism and opposition. As a result, any mutual understanding that does develop between the two peoples tends to be not based on fact.

I would like to stress the following point, a tendency I discussed when I referred to the survey results last year: In reply to a question about how people regard each other country's society and political system, nearly half of the Japanese polled said they understand South Korea to be a nationalist country, the society of which has a strong inclination toward nationalism, while many South Koreans said they regard Japan as a militarist country. Those who think that each other's country is a democracy were limited to about 20 percent. There must be few people in the two countries who agree with this finding.

We added one question to this year's survey. It is a question whether the news reporting by media organizations in Japan and South Korea has a bearing on the emotional people-to-people confrontation between the two countries. Of the Japanese polled, 62.1 percent replied that the media reports have fairly strong influences on the emotions toward each other's country. A corresponding figure on the South Korean side was also a high 63.6 percent. But the problem should not be limited to media reporting. We have to look at a structure in which the people of the two countries rely on media reports when trying to understand each other.

The conclusions we must draw from this survey finding are that direct exchanges between the peoples of the two countries have critical importance for the sound recognition and understanding of each other, and that the responsibility of media reporting is becoming extremely heavy.

In this context, I'd like to refer to an important clue for considering this problem. Parallel with the opinion surveys targeting the general public in the two countries, we have also posed the same questions to well-informed people in Japan and South Korea, and obtained replies from 633 people in Japan and 424 people in South Korea. We have to point out that there were differences in the findings between the general opinion surveys and the questionnaires of well-informed people.

Some 70 percent of the well-informed people, or intellectuals, who responded to the survey in each of the two countries, have experience of visiting each other's country for business and job-related purposes, compared to only 20 percent for the general public respondents. In addition, some 60 percent have friends or acquaintances in each other's country, or other channels of direct exchanges. Their sources of information are very diversified and eventually, the findings of the surveys covering intellectuals differ in many aspects from those for the general public.

For example, the general opinion poll showed that ordinary people have an unfavorable impression of each other's country and many media organizations paid much attention to the negative findings. But the questionnaires of well-informed people showed an opposite tendency. The most frequently mentioned description of the impression of each other's country was "favorable" on both sides. Specifically, 41.7 percent of Japanese intellectuals and 51.7 percent of their South Korean counterparts replied in this way. This finding reflects the fact that intellectuals in the two countries have direct channels of communication with the other country and this gives them diverse sources of information.

Presence of calm for objective observation

A significant finding I'd like to mention is that the latest survey shows that at the people and citizens' levels each other's country is viewed calmly and dispassionately, despite the ongoing antagonism between the two countries' governments. This is particularly obvious in a new survey question, which we have introduced this time, that is - "What do you think of the current situation of people's sentiment toward each other's country." Only 13.2 percent of Japanese respondents and 20.0 percent of South Korean respondents replied the current situation is "all natural and understandable." On the contrary, 61.2 percent of respondents in Japan said the situation is unfavorable or must be improved. Of the South Koreans, close to 70 percent, or 69.7 percent, replied in the same way.

This indicates that many people in both countries do not take the current confrontational relations for granted. Rather, they want to see an improvement in bilateral relations. In short, there is no public opinion in both countries that may fuel a nationalistic atmosphere with the government and the general public acting in unison.

In sharp contrast to such a tendency, both peoples give severe assessments of the present state of bilateral relations. For instance, over 70 percent of the respondents in both countries felt the government-to-government relations between the two countries "are bad" and 40 percent of the South Koreans anticipated the relations will "deteriorate further." While 60 percent of the Japanese and 70 percent of the South Koreans regarded Japan-South Korean relations as "important," and some 80 percent of both peoples replied Japan-South Korean summit conferences between top government leaders are "necessary." Nonetheless, 40 percent of the Japanese respondents and 70 percent of the South Korean respondents replied there is no need to hold a summit "in a hurry." Also, the evaluation of the political leaders of each other's country is visibly low.

These findings indicate that while many people in both countries have apprehensions about the current Japan-South Korea confrontation, they consider it will be difficult to improve the bilateral relations in the foreseeable future with the two governments' present leaderships. Asked who should rectify the current impasse, some 70 percent of the respondents in both countries pointed to the importance of private-sector exchanges.

Strong fear of military clash among South Korean people

The latest survey has attracted strong attention all over the world for its shocking findings regarding the mind-set of the South Korean people. For instance, 43.8 percent of the South Korean respondents regarded relations with China more important than those with Japan. Also, in this year's survey, Japan replaced China as the second military threat for the South Korean people only after North Korea. And 40 percent of respondents foresaw a military clash between Japan and South Korea.

For Japan, this is just an unbelievable number. Admittedly, South Korea has been strengthening its relations with China in economic and trade spheres, and it is understandable that many South Koreans perceive the importance in the relations with China in economic terms. However, their perception of Japan in military terms is so very different from the Japanese equivalent. Less than 10 percent of the Japanese respondents foresaw the occurrence of a military clash with South Korea.

It is true that the South Korean people's concerns have been strengthened by the behavior and words on the Japanese side, and all of these negative statements and deeds in Japan are echoed in South Korean public opinion through media reporting.

The latest survey has found that some 80 percent of the South Korean respondents foresee the Group of Two (G-2), or the United States and China, as the primary driving force of global politics in the future, an indication that the policy direction of South Korea having favorable relations both with the U.S. and China, prevailing within the South Korean government, is winning public support. Indeed, confrontation with Japan is not the sole reason for Seoul's rapprochement with Beijing. Yet, the latest survey signals a warning that the prolongation of Tokyo-Seoul disputes would have deep repercussions on the future of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.

Necessity of listening to coolheaded voices

What we have to understand with regard to the latest survey is the fact that the voices are diverse in any democratic and free country. However, there is a possibility that the deeds and words of certain government officials and political leaders will push the public opinion of one country in a certain direction through media reporting, creating a confrontational public sentiment between countries. Japan-South Korea relations are a good example. Such a tendency mounts in relations between countries where direct exchanges are scarce.

The latest survey results demonstrate that there are calm voices among the peoples of both countries who distance themselves from the government-to-government confrontation. It remains to be seen how such calm voices would develop to sustain efforts to improve bilateral relations.

My conviction is that private-sector initiatives, including the Japan-South Korea Future Dialogue forum, due to be held in Seoul on July 18 under the auspices of The Genron NPO and its South Korean partner, are becoming increasingly necessary to create a better environment for government-to-government diplomacy. At the upcoming Seoul forum, the results of the latest survey will be fully discussed by the participants from both countries in the hope that a new movement at the level of citizens would be created to push for the betterment of bilateral relations.

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