Japan Chair Platform: Increasing Security Awareness among the Japanese Public

  • Dec 13, 2012

    Claiming that nationalism is on the rise in Japan seems to be in vogue these days. To be sure, plenty of anecdotes exist of Japanese nationalism today: comments by jingoist, populist politicians such as Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president Shinzo Abe, or Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara; or visits by politicians to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. But these are anecdotes, not evidence of widespread nationalism. There are right-wing black “sound trucks” that roam Tokyo’s streets blaring militarist songs, but these are few and capture even fewer followers. Nor are there large-scale public demonstrations with Japanese waving the Hinomaru (Japanese flag) protesting Chinese and Korean behavior over disputed islands, as we see in China and Korea. Unfortunately, when an outspoken nationalist says something that infuriates Japan’s neighbors, it comes to represent nationalism in Japan as a whole. In turn, it upends efforts by the government to reconcile for Japan’s wartime behavior. While no justification can be made for nationalists whitewashing history, identifying minority behavior as majority sentiment is also untenable.

    While skeptical of nebulous descriptions of increasing Japanese nationalism, there is something different among the Japanese public today. But what is that something? From polls conducted by Japan’s Cabinet Office, it appears the something that has been changing is an increasing awareness of Japan’s growing security challenges.1  This awareness, in turn, has arguably enabled unprecedented domestic changes meant to bolster Japan’s security.

    Over the past two decades, the security environment of Northeast Asia has undergone profound changes. More than anything else, Japan has been contending with a rising China. Used to being the most modern military force in the region (apart from the United States), Japan has watched China pour money into modernizing and expanding its military without being transparent on its rationale or objectives. Although Chinese leaders have repeatedly stated its rise is peaceful, the Japanese people are paying close attention to Chinese behavior. Polls conducted since 2005 show an increasing interest in Chinese military modernization and maritime activities from 36.3 percent to 46 percent in 2011.

    Similarly, Japan has had to deal with an increasingly bellicose North Korea, as evident once again by this week's rocket launch. Over the past two decades, at the same time that North Korea has developed nuclear capabilities, improved its missile capabilities, and tested nuclear weapons, it has also launched missiles both over Japan and into waters surrounding it and sent spy ships into Japanese waters. For many Japanese citizens, the most abhorrent act was Pyongyang admitting in 2002 that it had abducted Japanese citizens in the past. North Korea’s failed missile launch in April 2012 served as a reminder that North Korea still remains an existential concern. The Cabinet Office polls indicate that the Japanese are closely watching developments, as interest in the situation on the Korean peninsula has risen from 17.3 percent in 1991 to 64.9 percent in 2011.

    Festering territorial disputes have also impacted public opinion in Japan. The increasing problems Japan faces with Russia, South Korea, and China over disputed islands have been caught up in historical disagreements and animosities, leading at times to anti-Japanese protests in those countries that have grown in size, frequency, and particularly in China, magnitude of violence. Unprecedented visits by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in November 2010 and Korean president Lee Myung-bak in August 2012 to islands Japan claims (the Northern Territories and Tokdo/Takeshima, respectively) has poured fuel on an already volatile situation. The result is an increasing deterioration of affection among the Japanese public toward these countries, as well as a growing pessimism about the state of Japan’s bilateral relations with each of these countries.

    While the majority of Japanese citizens have consistently not held affection for Russia or believed Russo-Japanese relations were favorable, there was a short period of improvement in the closing days of the Cold War. In 1990 and 1991 in particular, most likely the result of goodwill brought on by the end of the Cold War, the Japanese people felt the most affection toward Russia (around 24 percent) and favorable about bilateral relations (around 38 percent). Yet, in the two decades since then, those gains were lost. Medvedev’s 2010 trip to the Northern Territories surely did not help these trends. In the most recent poll taken in September 2012, 69.2 percent expressed that bilateral relations were not favorable (24.9 percent felt they were), and 76.5 percent did not feel affection for Russia (19.5 percent did).

    Unlike Russia, the Japanese public did look favorably on bilateral relations with China and did feel affection toward China, but over the past two decades this changed, starting in 1989 (most likely due to Tiananmen Square). Prior to 1989, 68 percent or more annually felt affection toward China, while 66 percent or more felt bilateral relations were favorable. Polls show that both have fallen, particularly over the past decade but with rapid deterioration in the past few years, no doubt reflecting Japanese awareness of the Chinese reaction to the 2010 collision of a Chinese fishing trawler with Japanese Coast Guard vessels and the most recent series of anti-Japanese protests. In 2012, affection for China plummeted to 18 percent (those who do not feel affection rose from 26.4 percent in 1988 to 80.6 percent), while favorable views of bilateral relations bottomed out at 4.8 percent (those who view relations unfavorably rose to 92.8 percent).

    Japanese views of Korea are more complex, reflecting the ups and downs of bilateral relations and cultural exchanges. Until 1999, the majority of Japanese citizens did not feel affection toward Korea, but affection rose to 62.2 percent by 2011, most likely a reflection of the influx of Korean dramas and music, known as the “Korean Wave” phenomenon. Yet, there was a sharp downturn in 2005 and 2006, arguably reflecting irritation with the protests in South Korea against Japan and calls by then-President Roh Moo-hyun for Japan to offer apologies for its past acts and further compensate Korean victims, both of which were reactions to Shimane Prefecture’s establishment of “Takeshima Day.” No doubt reflecting President Lee’s visit to the disputed island in August 2012 and his additional rhetoric regarding historical issues and the Japanese emperor, affection for Korea plummeted to 39.2 percent in 2012. Public views of the bilateral relationship have also plummeted from 66.5 percent favorable in 2009 to just 18.4 percent in 2012. (Those who view relations unfavorably rocketed from 36 percent in 2011 to 78.8 percent in 2012, a record high.)

    Gradually then, over the past two decades, Japan has seen its security environment deteriorate with increasing challenges from China, North Korea, and unresolved territorial disputes. The Cabinet Office polls outlined above indicate that not only have the Japanese people been tracking these changes, but there is an associated trend of increasing pessimism about Japan’s bilateral relations with its neighbors and declining favorability toward these countries. What is perhaps the most surprising is that in 2011, 72.3 percent of Japanese citizens believed there was a danger Japan could get wrapped up in a war, compared to 55.4 percent at the end of the Cold War (1991) and the highest mark of 57 percent in 1978.

    This growing awareness of Japan’s security environment matters because it has made possible significant changes in security policies that would have been unthinkable two decades ago. These changes include the relaxation of Japan’s arms exports law, the joint development of a missile defense system with the United States, the approval of the transfer by the United States to third parties of SM-3 Block IIA Missile technology, the establishment of security relations with Australia and India, and the widening of Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) rules of engagement and scope for the MSDF to use force to protect commercial ships. This also has meant that serious debate about other issues can occur without the ideological opposition encountered in the past, such as relaxing Japan’s prohibition on collective self-defense and on Self-Defense Force (SDF) weapons’ use standards. The increasing public awareness has also enabled governments to expand the types of missions the SDF can conduct. Recalling the contentious debates in 1990 over participation in the Gulf conflict, it is remarkable that the SDF has since participated in UN peacekeeping operations throughout the world, humanitarian/reconstruction missions in countries with ongoing conflict (i.e., Iraq), refueling missions for other countries engaged in combat (i.e., Afghanistan), and antipiracy operations (i.e., Gulf of Aden), which include Japan’s first overseas base since the Pacific War.

    While the meaning of the Cabinet Office’s data is open to interpretation, there is arguably a case to be made that the Japanese people have become more aware of the increasing security challenges confronting Japan and more pessimistic of Japan’s relations with its neighbors. In turn, this awareness and pessimism have enabled changes in Japan’s security policies that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. If LDP president Shinzo Abe regains the premiership, the increased awareness could translate into additional changes advocated by Abe, such as collective self-defense, the establishment of a National Security Council, and the renaming of the SDF to the National Defense Force. In other words, more changes may be right over the horizon.


    Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii, and an adjunct fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Pacific Command, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


    1There are two primary polls taken by the Cabinet Office that track security-related issues. They are “Gaikou ni Kan Suru Seron Chousa” and “Jieitai-Bouei Mondai ni Kan Suru Seron Chousa.” Both can be found at http://www8.cao.go.jp/survey/index.html.

    Japan Chair Platform is published by the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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