Perilous perception gaps surge between
Tokyo and Seoul 50 years after
normalizing diplomatic relations

May 30, 2015

By Yasushi Kudo,
President of The Genron NPO

We, The Genron NPO, published on May 27 the findings of the 2015 Japan-South Korea joint public opinion survey, organized with our South Korean partner the East Asia Institute. This was the third survey of its kind carried out by the two think tanks. The joint opinion poll is aimed at continuously monitoring the course of mutual understanding and views among the peoples of Japan and South Korea, thereby helping to remove various perception gaps between the two countries' peoples and promote mutual understanding between the two sides.

The two organizations inaugurated the Japan-Korea Future Dialogue in 2013. This year's dialogue will be held in Tokyo on June 21, one day before the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea. The findings of the latest opinion survey will be used in the forthcoming dialogue.

Looking back at the results of the joint opinion surveys by our two organizations in the past three years, sentiments toward each other's country among Japanese and South Korean peoples, and their views about the current situation of Japan-South Korea relations worsened sharply last year. This year's survey showed no sign of improvement in their sentiments toward each other and their views about Japan-South Korea relations. In particular, the situation in South Korea remains harsh, as it did so last year.

The ratio of Japanese people who negatively view South Korea remained above 50 percent. Specifically, 52.4 percent of Japanese polled in this year's survey aired a negative view about South Korea, compared to 54.4 percent for the previous year. A comparable figure for South Koreans polled this year came to 72.5 percent as against 70.9 percent a year before. Of the Japanese polled, 65.4 percent negatively viewed the present relationship between the two countries, a slight improvement from 73.8 percent last year but well above 60 percent. Almost 80 percent of their South Korean counterparts had a negative view about relations between Japan and South Korea. Specifically, 78.3 percent of them replied in a negative manner, against 77.8 percent in 2014.

Meanwhile, some 40 percent of the polled in each country predicted the harsh bilateral situation will continue in the future. The percentage of those with such a pessimistic view is the largest and increased from the previous year, but the rate of increase is not as large as anticipated. This apparently reflects the serious efforts by both governments toward diplomatic rapprochement, and despite the absence of immediate signs of improvement, many people in both countries might have found it difficult to imagine how such a poor bilateral relationship could deteriorate further.

Two structural factors behind negative mind-sets

There are two structural factors behind the strong negative sentiments harbored by the peoples of Japan and South Korea toward each other's country.
One factor is that South Korean people criticize Japan and its people within the solidified framework characterized by the issues of Japan's historical understanding and territorial disputes, whereas Japanese people object strongly to this kind of persistent South Korean criticism.

Another factor is that the two countries' peoples rely on media reports in their respective country, particularly TV reports, to form their views on each other's country. We refer to this point every time in commenting on the findings of our opinion surveys. This tendency was seen in the latest survey, too.

Over 90 percent of the polled on both sides mentioned media reports in their respective country as a primary source of information about each other's country. Of these respondents, about 70 percent cited TV reports as their main source of information. Meanwhile, only about 20 percent of the two countries' peoples have visited each other's country. More than 70 percent of the Japanese polled and more than 80 percent of the South Koreans polled had no friends or acquaintances in each other's country. This indicates that the degree of direct exchanges with each other remains unsatisfactory on both sides and that as a result, to close the gap, they rely on secondhand information, notably media reports. This situation has remained unchanged since our survey started.

The ups and downs in people's sentiments toward each other's country are traceable to media reports in their own countries. This tendency was also seen in a separate joint opinion survey in which we interviewed well-informed figures in both countries. Every time we organize the opinion surveys, we direct the same questions we ask ordinary people to well-informed persons registered with our two organizations. These persons have direct sources of information in each other's country through their business and research activities. Because they do not excessively depend on media reports to organize their views toward each other's country, their views have not worsened as much as those of ordinary people in the years under review.

Another point to keep in mind, in this regard, is that the evaluation of their respective domestic media reporting differs slightly between the peoples of both countries. More than 50 percent of the South Koreans polled, or 51.7 percent, thought the coverage of news related to bilateral relations by the domestic media organizations "is not objective and impartial," whereas the largest percent of the Japanese polled (43 percent) replied "neither/don't know" to the same question. In my observation, many South Koreans apparently do not trust the excessive or extreme news reporting by their domestic media organizations but are deeply bound by their adherence to the established framework of criticism of Japan. There is no sign of any tangible actions to rectify the impasse and they have no alternative but to deepen their unfocused sentiment of confrontation. I suspect that against the backdrop of the South Korean people's fierce criticism lies such a structure that is inherent in public opinion there.

Newly emerging perilous perceptions

The sole most encouraging finding of the latest poll is that nearly 70 percent of those polled on both sides replied that the current situation of Japan-South Korea relations is undesirable and must be improved - 67.8 percent of the Japanese respondents and 67.2 percent of the South Korean respondents. This point is noteworthy because the two countries' peoples equally have a calm view about issues of mutual concern. But the result also shows that they have no idea how the problems should be solved. The finding also indicates that they doubt that any quick action will lead to a solution.

The leaders of Japan and South Korea have not met during the past three years. Those polled on both sides were critical of political leaders in each other's country. More than 80 percent of the respondents on both sides hoped that summits will be resumed between the two countries, but about 40 percent of the Japanese polled and nearly 70 percent of the South Koreans polled were negative toward resuming such meetings any time soon.

Our largest apprehension regarding the findings of the poll is a visible sign that a new form of perception and understanding of each other's country is being built among the peoples of both countries, respectively, in a manner that would never be accepted by the other country's people. To make matters worse, the direction of a change in such a mind-set is exactly the same between ordinary people and well-informed people.

For instance, as high as 55.7 percent of the Japanese polled consider the current state of South Korean society to be "ethnicistic," as compared to 44.8 percent in the 2014 poll. And 38.6 percent regard the neighboring country as a "nationalistic" state, up from 32.4 percent in the same comparison. The perception of South Korea as a "democratic" country was shared by only 14 percent of the Japanese polled, down from 21.5 percent, apparently reflecting a reaction to the South Korean judicial authorities' imposition of a travel ban on the former Seoul bureau chief of the Sankei Shimbun newspaper. Although the travel ban was lifted after eight months in April this year, the Japanese journalist was indicted and is on trial on charges of defaming President Park Geun-hye in an article. Such an attitude toward South Korea is conspicuous among well-informed people or intellectuals.

Meanwhile, the percentage of the South Koreans polled who regard Japan as a "militarist" state surged from 53.1 percent in 2014 to 56.9 percent this year while that of those who consider Japan to be "hegemonistic" grew largely to 34.3 percent from 26.8 percent in the previous poll. Of the well-informed South Korean people polled, a relatively small 31 percent regard Japan as being "militarist," but as many as 64.8 percent replied they felt there was a strong current of "nationalism" in today's Japan, up from 57.8 percent in the same comparison.

Another finding of the latest poll, the military threat from Japan as perceived by South Korean people, has come as a big surprise to many Japanese. The poll found that 58.1 percent of the polled in South Korea, up from 46.3 percent in 2014, thought Japan was a "military threat" to their country. Japan ranked only second to North Korea with 83.4 percent. Only 36.8 percent felt there was a military threat from China, meaning that for South Korean people, Japan is a greater military threat than China. Meanwhile, only 11.2 percent of the Japanese polled felt South Korea posed a military threat, whereas the corresponding figure was the highest 71.6 percent for North Korea and 64.3 percent for China. Even more surprising is the finding that as high as 37.8 percent of the South Koreans polled felt there was the possibility of a military clash between Japan and South Korea, as compared to just 9.3 percent for the Japanese pollees. The corresponding figure for South Korean intellectuals was much higher, or 43 percent.

Japan's two faces seen from South Korea

From where do such perilous perception gaps come? This is what we, Japanese and South Korean people, must ponder in earnest, after seeing the results of the latest poll carried out on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two neighboring countries.

As shown by the results of the latest poll, only a small minority of Japanese people foresee a military clash in the future between Japan and South Korea. And many Japanese may believe that South Korean people do not think so in all seriousness, with due reason.

In spite of deep-rooted differences between the two peoples over the historical and other issues, and the resultant stalemate in government-to-government diplomacy, many Japanese believe that both countries share the universal values of democracy and freedom, and that both countries share vital interests with the United States in the sphere of national security. From this perspective, Japan's moves to strengthen joint actions with the United States in the security area should be interpreted as an extremely practical response to counter the ongoing shift in the balance of power in Northeast Asia in the wake of China's rise. These moves will eventually contribute to the security of South Korea. This should not be taken as the revival of militarism in Japan.

Nonetheless, these moves are seen in South Korea as a return to Japan's militaristic ways. This phenomenon cannot be solely traceable to the words and deeds of some Japanese political leaders, which allegedly provoke South Korean people, especially over the issues of historical understanding. My concern is that many people, in Japan and South Korea, are losing sight of the present-day significance of the bilateral relationship.

Seen from South Korea, Japan has two faces. One is the face of a "victimizer" who imposed colonial rule on their country. Another is the face of a "practical partner" for South Korea, which faces off against North Korea. South Korea is deeply associated with Japan through its military alliance with the United States.

The rise of China, coupled with Japan being in two minds over historical issues, has made South Korean people less cognizant of Japan's importance for them, in the sense of the second face of Japan. Eventually, the recent developments in Japan related to the right to collective self-defense, and the submission to the National Diet of a package of security- and defense-related bills, will be seen by South Koreans as nothing but a "threat" in that they will only help to confound the volatile security environment in Northeast Asia.

In this regard, an interesting finding of the latest poll is that 65.3 percent of the Japanese polled replied that Japan-South Korea relations are important, up from 60 percent in the previous poll, while as high as 87.4 percent of the South Koreans polled, up from 73.4 percent in 2014, replied the same. It is important to note that an overwhelming majority of South Korean people recognize the importance of bilateral relations.

The optimism ends here. This finding bears quite a different meaning, if compared to the respective relations of Japan and South Korea with China.

The poll shows 44.8 percent, up from 43.8 percent in 2014, of the South Korean pollees said relations with China are more important than relations with Japan, and 46.6 percent replied that both relations are "equally important" for South Korea. Only 5 percent said relations with Japan are more important. Meanwhile, 49.1 percent of the Japanese pollees, up from 47.0 percent, said relations with South Korea and those with China are "equally important." And 25.1 percent said relations with China are more important than relations with South Korea, a sharp increase from 15.6 percent in the previous year. It should be added that the largest percent (41 percent) of the South Korean pollees feel much closer to China than Japan, and only 11.1 percent feel a closer affinity with Japan than China.

Necessity of future-oriented dialogue

As the shift in the balance of power in Northeast Asia continues to move toward China, China is becoming a very important and influential presence to South Korea in many areas, including economic ties and relations with North Korea. In painting a future picture for this part of the world, the same tasks and challenges should be shared by Japan and South Korea, which have the same values in common as partners. Regrettably, the deterioration of public sentiments toward each other's country combines with the wholesale absence of government-to-government communications to obscure the vital importance of bilateral relations. The findings of the latest poll are indicative of the predicament.

The harsh reality of the "new and perilous perception gaps" between Japan and South Korea, as seen in the findings of the latest survey, is seemingly prodding us to take new actions and cause a change in the environment of Northeast Asia. It is quite natural that as the "victimizer," Japan should continue to face its past with sincerity. At the same time, all the states, which share universal values and vital interests, must overcome their differences and launch future-oriented dialogues in order to create a peaceful and stable order in the rapidly changing Northeast Asia.

Using the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations as a turning point, political leaders of both countries should engage in serious discussions to reaffirm the importance of bilateral relations. If they cannot achieve this, we, the private sector, should set the stage to that end.

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