Japan-South Korea: How Bad Can it Get? (Part I)

Most analysts of East Asia have been surprised about how far the Japan-South Korea relationship could deteriorate. Yes, the Abe administration has had a tin ear for history issues. But would those indiscretions really override the many strategic and economic interests the two countries share?

The short answer is “yes,” which a must-read new survey from the East Asia Institute (Seoul) and Genron NPO provides in depressing detail. In 2013, the two organizations initiated the Korea-Japan Future Dialogue, an annual conference of representative of civil society, politicians, artists, and entrepreneurs–but not government officials–to discuss ways to mend bilateral ties. As part of this project, the two organizations also commissioned an annual public opinion survey of Korean and Japanese citizens—about 1000 from each country–to see how they perceive each other. In this two-part post, we report and comment on some of the more striking findings, starting with the overall state of play and the history issues.

Chart 1 reports overall opinion. As expected, South Korean opinion is more negative—fully 70 percent of the South Korean sample view Japan unfavorably. But an unpleasant surprise was the rising negative opinion in Japan. Not only did 54.4% of Japanese respondents view South Korea negatively, but more than half of Japanese said that relations had worsened. About 75% of respondents in both countries rated the bilateral relationship “extremely” or “relatively” bad.

Genron Jpn-sk poll chart1

Chart 2—which allows multiple responses—asks respondents the source of their negative reactions. It shows that “inadequate repentance over the history of invasion” (for Koreans) and “criticism of Japan over history issues” (for Japan) trump the Dokdo issue by a wide margin; only 42% of Japanese list Dokdo at all. When asked about barriers to improvement in the bilateral relationship (Chart 9), the Dokdo issue rises in significance, which could be a hopeful sign; if Japan were to desist from its claims, then the relationship might improve. But this is unlikely to happen to the Korean public’s satisfaction. Almost 60% of Japanese think the Dokdo issue should be brought to the International Court of Justice; only 14% of Koreans agree.

Genron Jpn-sk poll chart2

Genron Jpn-sk poll chart9

Overall, the survey shows that sentiment still constitutes a crucial element in the relationship: anti-Japanese sentiment and understanding of history in Korea for Japanese respondents, and historical awareness and education in Japan. The political mobilization of emotion still plays a distressing role in the relationship.

Perhaps the most striking finding in the survey comes in Chart 6, which again allows multiple responses. When asked to choose from a long list of descriptors of the Japanese political system, a slim majority of Korean respondents chose “militarism” (53.1%); the dominant response of Japanese respondents about the Korean political and social system was “ethnicism” (44.8%) or “nationalism” (32.4%). Such perceptions—no matter how far removed from reality–are much more difficult to mend; indeed, they are difficult to mend precisely because they are so far-fetched.

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