Despite souring public sentiment about their domestic economy and some concern about Japan’s declining role on the world stage, the Japanese are outward looking. They believe that involvement in the global economy is good for the country and that Japan should help other nations, particularly developing ones, deal with their problems.
After years of stagnating growth and start-stop economic recoveries, just three-in-ten Japanese believe economic conditions in their country are good, down 7 percentage points from last year. And roughly a third of the Japanese say Japan plays a less important role today than it did a decade ago.
Nevertheless, nearly six-in-ten say international trade and investment is good for Japan because it creates new market opportunities and boosts growth. Roughly the same share of the public believes that Japan needs to assist other nations with their problems. Majorities want to increase investment in, trade with, and foreign aid to developing countries. And about half say Japan should take its allies’ concerns into account when making Japanese foreign policy.
Yet Japanese embrace of the world has its limits. Despite quite negative views of China and the threat China’s emergence as a world power poses for Japan, the Japanese overwhelmingly reject a more robust military role for their country in the Asia-Pacific region. There is little support for more military spending, and the Japanese oppose using overwhelming military force to defeat terrorism. Moreover, the Japanese, like Europeans and Americans, are exclusionary in their view of national identity. For a person to be considered truly Japanese, around nine-in-ten believe that a person has to speak Japanese and share Japanese customs and traditions; nearly eight-in-ten say he or she must be born in Japan.
And while a majority of the Japanese public maintains a favorable view of their longtime ally the United States, roughly half see U.S. power and influence as a major threat to Japan. An even larger share of the population (61%) sees America in decline, a harsher judgment of the U.S. than is found in China.
These are among the key findings from a new survey by Pew Research Center, conducted among 1,000 respondents in Japan from April 26 to May 29, 2016.
Japanese views of their place in the world: How they compare with others
Among some of the leading nations of the world, the Japanese are the most likely to voice the view that their nation should help other countries deal with their problems: 59% of Japanese take this outward-looking stance compared with just 37% of Americans, a median of 40% across 10 EU nations and only 23% in India and 22% in China.
The Japanese (58%) share with the Chinese (60%) and the Europeans (56%) a view that engagement with the global economy is good for their country. Only 44% of Americans hold that opinion.
But the Japanese (24%) are far less likely than the Chinese (75%) and Indians (68%) to believe that their country has a more important role in the world today than it did 10 years ago. In this regard, Japanese sentiment is more like that shared in Europe (23%) and the U.S. (21%). Moreover, the Japanese public, less involved in the war on terror than their counterparts in other major nations surveyed, has far less faith in the use of military force to defeat terrorism.
Public dispirited about economy, yet view of country’s direction is at recent high
Japan has been on a long, dispiriting journey since the heady days of the late 1980s, when Japan’s economy was growing by leaps and bounds. The country has endured two and a half decades of anemic growth, averaging just 1.08% since 1990, according to the World Bank.
Just 30% of the public believes the economy is in good shape; 68% believe the current economic situation is bad. The share that says things are good is down 7 percentage points from 2015. However, this gloomy perception needs to be seen in historical perspective. As recently as 2012, just 7% gave the economy a thumbs-up.
Nevertheless, the Japanese are divided on the how things in general are going in the country: 47% are satisfied and 45% are dissatisfied. Satisfaction is up significantly from 34% in 2014. And, notably, contentment with the country’s direction today is higher than at any time since the Pew Research Center first asked the question in 2002. Those with more than a secondary school education (57%) are more likely to say things are going well than those with a secondary education or less (41%).
Nearly four years into his second stint in office, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe draws generally positive, if somewhat muted, reviews.
Roughly half the public (52%) approves of his handling of the economy, while 39% disapprove. Nearly three-quarters (74%) give a positive grade to Abe’s handling of relations with the United States. And more than half (54%) back his dealings with South Korea, while about a third (34%) disapprove. The public is less supportive of Abe’s handling of relations with China (46% approve, 40% disapprove).
Men (58%) are more supportive than women (46%) of Abe’s handling of the economy. There is a 13-percentage-point difference in views between men (81%) and women (68%) about the prime minister’s handling of relations with the U.S. Japanese with more than a high school education are more supportive (53%) than those with a high school education or less (42%) of Abe’s dealings with China. And there is a similar division in views about his relations with South Korea (62% support from more highly educated Japanese, 50% from the less educated).
Public divided on Japan’s international trajectory, willing to help others
About seven-in-ten Japanese (71%) say cyberattacks from other countries are a major threat to Japan. Roughly the same share of the public (69%) believes the Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS represents a major threat. And a similar number (68%) cite global climate change as a major problem. Notably, it is older Japanese (75% of those ages 50 and older), not younger ones (59% ages 18 to 34), who are the most worried about global warming.
Despite widespread antipathy toward Beijing, a smaller share of the public (63%) names China’s emergence as a world power as a major threat to Japan. And despite a largely favorable view of the United States, roughly half the Japanese public (52%) also names U.S. power and influence as a major international challenge for Japan. Young Japanese (63%), those ages 18 to 34, are more likely than those ages 50 and older (47%) to see the U.S. as a threat.
Japan has the third-largest economy in the world, trailing only the United States and China. Its military does not rival that of the U.S, China and Russia, but ranks prominently among the second tier of strategic powers. And Japan is the fifth-largest exporter in the world.
But the Japanese public has a mixed view of the trajectory of Japan’s role in the world. Only about a quarter (24%) believes Japan plays a more important role in the world today compared with 10 years ago. About a third (34%) says Japan plays a less important role. And 39% hold the view that Japan’s role is about as important today as it was a decade ago. (In comparison, 21% of Americans and 75% of Chinese think their country is more important.)
Despite this uncertainty about their country’s place on the world stage, the Japanese are outward looking. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) say Japan should help other nations deal with their problems.
This is a greater sense of public commitment to the rest of the world than in any of the other major nations surveyed in 2016. And a majority of Japanese also held such sentiment in Pew Research Center surveys conducted in both 2010 and 2011. Only about a third of the public (35%) believes that Japan should deal with its own challenges and let others deal with their own problems. Men (64%) more than women (55%) back Japan helping others, as do those with a high school education or more (64%) compared with those with a secondary education or less (56%).
In one indicator of their commitment to help others, 73% of Japanese believe that Japanese companies should increase their investment in developing nations. Just 19% oppose such business activity. Roughly as many Japanese (71%) support importing more goods from developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Again, only a fifth of the public opposes such commercial help for poor nations. And 66% of Japanese back increasing foreign aid to developing countries, while 27% oppose boosting such assistance. (Currently, Japan commits 0.22% of its gross national income to foreign aid, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By comparison, the U.S. donates 0.17% and the UK 0.71%.) Notably, Japanese men (74%) are more likely than women (58%) to support increased foreign aid for developing countries.)
In its conduct of foreign policy, roughly half (48%) of Japanese voice the view that Japan should take into account the interests of its allies, even if it means making compromises. Only 40% believe that Japan should follow its own national interests in international affairs, even when its allies strongly disagree.
With regard to the goals of that foreign policy, roughly six-in-ten (62%) say improving human rights is important, but many other foreign policy objectives should be more important. Just 29% believe that improving human rights around the world should be one of Japan’s most important foreign policy goals. And only 3% dismiss human rights as a national foreign policy aim.
More than one-third of the Japanese economy is accounted for by imports and exports of goods and services. And the Japanese public backs such global economic engagement. A majority (58%) believes that it is a good thing for Japan to be economically involved with the world because it provides the nation with new markets and opportunities for growth. Just a third (32%) say such engagement is a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs Japan jobs. Japanese with more than a high school education are more likely (67%) than those with a high school education or less (52%) to say involvement in the global economy is good for Japan.
But the Japanese are under no illusion that they are the world’s leading economy. Just 6% of Japanese believe their country is the world’s economic superpower. Fully 61% say the leader is the United States, while 24% name China.
The exercise of military force has been controversial in Japan since World War II. The Japanese Constitution outlaws war as a means for the state to settle international disputes. A majority (62%) of Japanese say Japan should limit its military role in the Asia-Pacific region. Just 29% voice the view that Japan should play a more active military role in regional affairs. Notably, support for a more active military role is up 6 percentage points since 2015. Among the minority of Japanese who believe Japan should take on more military responsibilities, men (36%) are more likely than women (22%) to hold this view.
The Japanese public’s reluctance to endorse the use of military force can also be seen in their concern about how to defeat terrorism around the world. Nearly seven-in-ten Japanese (69%) see ISIS as a major threat. Yet roughly eight-in-ten (79%) believe that relying too much on military force will create hatred that leads to more terrorism. Only 14% back using overwhelming military force as the best way to defeat international terrorism.
Japan spends roughly 1% of its economy on defense. But only 29% of the public wants to increase such outlays. About half (52%) favor keeping military spending the same. And 14% want to see the government decrease military expenditures. Among the minority of Japanese who want to increase defense spending, it is men more than women.
Japanese have a view of national identity similar to Europeans, Americans
Japan is a relatively closed society demographically. The foreign population in Japan accounts for just 1.6% of the country’s population. This is the third-smallest share in any OECD country. And the Japanese feel strongly about their national identity. Roughly nine-in-ten Japanese believe that to be considered truly Japanese, it is very important (70%) or somewhat important (22%) to be able to speak Japanese. A similar portion says it is very (43%) or somewhat important (47%) to share national customs and traditions to identify as Japanese. And roughly three-quarters voice the view that it is very (50%) or somewhat important (27%) to have been born in Japan to be truly Japanese. The intensity of such sentiment is felt most strongly by older Japanese – those ages 50 and older – who are far more likely than those ages 18 to 34 to believe it is very important that a person be born in Japan, speak Japanese and adhere to Japanese customs and traditions to be considered truly Japanese.
Japanese views of national identity are similar to those of Europeans and Americans. Seven-in-ten Japanese believe it is very important for a person to be able to speak Japanese to be considered truly Japanese, compared with a median of 77% of Europeans across 10 EU nations and 70% of Americans who say facility in the local language is very important for being considered a native. Roughly four-in-ten Japanese believe it is very important to share Japanese customs and traditions to be truly Japanese; 48% of Europeans and 45% of Americans strongly link culture with nationality. And half of Japanese say it is very important to be born in Japan to be truly Japanese, while just 33% of Europeans and 32% of Americans strongly associate nativity with nationality.
Mixed views of other nations
Roughly seven-in-ten Japanese (72%) have a favorable view of the United States. Such sentiment is roughly consistent with Japanese public opinion about America going back a decade. Only in 2011, after U.S. aid in response to the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear accident, did Japanese support for the U.S. briefly spike (85%).
Their positive take on the U.S. does not keep the Japanese from taking a pessimistic view of their long-time ally’s trajectory on the world stage. About six-in-ten (61%) say the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader today compared with 10 years ago. Just 7% believe the U.S. plays a more important role, while 29% say Washington is as important as a decade ago. Such Japanese sentiment about a longtime ally is striking: Only 39% of the Chinese see the U.S. as less important than before.
Japanese ages 50 and older (67%) are more likely than those ages 18 to 34 (51%) to believe that the United States plays a less important role on the world stage today, as do men (66%) more than women (57%) and Japanese with more than a high school education (70%) compared with those with a high school education or less (56%).
Nevertheless, the Japanese retain confidence (78%) in U.S. President Barack Obama to do the right thing regarding world affairs. Japanese support for the American chief executive has been strong throughout his presidency.
Seven-in-ten Japanese also express confidence in Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, much more faith in her than they had when she last ran for president in 2008 (47%).
Only 9% of Japanese have confidence in Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to do the right thing regarding world affairs. An overwhelming 82% express no confidence.
Strongly negative views of China
The Japanese are not nearly as positive about China, their most powerful Asian neighbor. Roughly one-in-ten (11%) hold a favorable view of China, while 86% express an unfavorable opinion, including 42% who are very unfavorable. This was not always the case: In 2002, 55% of Japanese had a positive view of China.
Current anti-Chinese sentiment is also reflected in the fact that just 12% have confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Such negative views of China and its leader may be one manifestation of Japanese fears of a military confrontation with China. Eight-in-ten Japanese believe that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors could lead to a military conflict.
Nevertheless, the Japanese are divided on how best to deal with their superpower neighbor. In thinking about relations with China, 47% say having a strong economic relationship is the most important thing to do, while 45% believe the best way forward is to be tough on territorial disputes between Japan and China.
Japanese views of South Korea are little better: Just 27% voice a favorable view, down from 56% in 2006. Today, 68% of Japanese hold an unfavorable opinion of South Korea, including one-in-four who have a very unfavorable view.
Japanese have long held a much higher opinion of India. More than half (54%) have a favorable view of the South Asian nation. Notably, around one-in-five Japanese voice no opinion about India. At least half of Japanese have been positively disposed toward India for the last decade, but the current approval is down from its peak of 70% in 2012.
Japan is not a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a consequence of having been on the losing side in World War II. But the Abe government aspires to such a seat. At the same time, Japanese public support for the United Nations is down after peaking in 2011. Just 45% of Japanese hold a favorable view of the UN today; in 2011, 61% viewed the UN favorably. Younger Japanese (55%) have a more positive opinion of the UN than older Japanese (44%).