What Japanese and Americans think about each other
March 20th, 2013
07:53 AM ET

What Japanese and Americans think about each other

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.

What a difference a generation makes! Japan’s decision to join negotiations to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership with the United States and other Pacific nations reflects, in part, the sea change in public opinion that has transformed U.S.-Japan relations. A quarter of a century ago, ties between Washington and Tokyo were characterized by public distrust and animosity. Today, there is support for deeper integration of the two economies through greater trade. The upcoming TPP negotiations will be contentious. But the political context in which these talks will take place is far more supportive than ever before.

In the last few decades, despite periodic trade tensions, Americans have generally held a favorable overall opinion of Japan. In 1990, near the high point of  the Washington-Tokyo battles over trade in autos, rice and other goods, almost two-thirds of Americans nonetheless thought well of Japan, according to a survey by the Times Mirror Corporation. By 2009, 67 percent of Americans still felt favorably disposed toward Japan, according to the Pew Research Center.

But trade relations have long been a neuralgic irritant in bilateral relations. In 1989, 63 percent of Americans believed Japan practiced unfair trade, while a little more than half wanted to increase tariffs on products imported from Japan. In 1995, 61 percent of the American public approved of President Bill Clinton’s decision to impose import duties on imports of luxury Japanese cars.

But U.S. sentiment has shifted dramatically. According to a 2010 survey, three-in-five Americans now want to increase trade with Japan, compared with 58 percent who would like to deepen commercial ties with the European Union and only 45 percent who want to boost trade with China.

So why the change? One reason may be that China has replaced Japan as America’s principal trade competitor, both in fact and in the minds of the American people. In 1990, Japan accounted for 40.7 percent of the U.S. merchandise trade deficit. China made up just 10.3 percent. By 2012, Japan accounted for only 10.5 percent of the U.S. global imbalance. China was responsible for 43.3 percent.

It is little wonder then that today, four-in-ten Americans see China as the world’s leading economic power and thus the principal challenger to American economic preeminence. And according to a recent Pew Research survey, 49 percent of Americans want to be tough with Beijing on economic matters. By comparison, just 6 percent cite Japan as an economic powerhouse today, compared with almost half who thought Tokyo was the top dog in 1990.

The Japanese, for their part, have seen a markedly improved view of the United States. In 1993, only 37 percent of the public thought relations between Japan and the U.S. were good, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey. By 2002, almost three quarters had a favorable view of America, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Japanese attitudes toward trade with the United State have also improved. In 1994, a United States Information Agency survey found that a plurality (40 percent) of Japanese thought that U.S. policies and actions were harmful to the Japanese economy. And more than half said Washington made it difficult to sell Japanese products in the American market. Today, 48 percent of Japanese think their country should participate in TPP, which is effectively a free trade agreement with the United States, according to a November 2012 Asahi Shimbun survey.

A more positive bilateral public disposition is no assurance of success for the TPP negotiations. Washington will want openings of the Japanese rice and auto markets that Tokyo will resist. As the talks become more acrimonious, public opinion on both sides of the Pacific could sour. But clearly these negotiations begin in a public opinion environment that is far more favorable than that which existed a generation ago. That, in itself, is notable.

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Topics: Japan • United States

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    That the US and Ja pan are moving closer toward each other is comprehensible, as they face the same challenges from China and North Korea. Despite the atomic past the two countries managed to co-operate and today they are strong allies. Indeed the TTP will only enhance their trade ties, if the two can work out their differences and compromise.

    March 21, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  2. well

    well, their gov is corrupt both cronyism wise (family connections school connection) and corporate corruption. We are just corporate corruption all the way. they also tarrif the crap out of US stuff, we dont to them. and since they build them here no tarriff. not sure on how they stucture their US corproate tax. i think when you see Toyota North America its a US corp subject to same tax asUS companies. thats hopeful thinking anyone know? If you visit there you will be astounded at the cleanliness of everything and the attendtion to detail in everything from the stone walls to their streets and structures to the utility poles which look like they cost 5 times more than US municiple poles

    March 30, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  3. CMJD44

    Reminds me of two brothers getting in a fist fight, and the next day they are laughing, wondering why they ever fought in the first place, but the scary thing is, if they did it once they can do it again. Tempers are such a fragile thing. World peace could happen, but somebody would say something about somebody's momma, they would fight, escalate, USA would step in where it should have minded its own business, citizens get angry their tax money is being wasted on war...world peace over, we are all highly combustible idiots that take too much stock in our emotions, don't let your heart guide you, your heart doesn't have a brain

    March 31, 2013 at 4:55 am | Reply

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