TOKYO -- A shock wave rippled among Japanese and American experts on Japan-U.S. relations after an opinion survey last summer found a plunge in the number of Americans who believe that the two countries should maintain their security treaty.
The survey has been conducted in the U.S. almost every year since 1960 by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The latest poll was carried out by U.S. research firm Harris Interactive on behalf of the ministry in July and August last year, covering 1,000 ordinary American citizens aged 18 and older, and 201 intellectuals.
The surprising finding was that 67% of the citizens and 77% of the intellectuals replied affirmatively to a question on whether the treaty should be maintained. These were steep drops of 22 and 16 percentage points respectively from the previous survey in February and March 2012. The decrease was unprecedented since the question was first asked in 1996.
The latest survey was conducted a little more than six months after the formation of the Shinzo Abe administration in Japan. The two countries made headway toward rebuilding their relations by that time while Japan had participated in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. In addition, economic activity was picking up thanks to Abenomics.
Japan, therefore, should have become more valuable to the U.S., so the question is why the rate of support for the maintenance of the Japan-U.S. security treaty plunged by around 20 percentage points.
Richard Samuels, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading Japanologist in the U.S., attributed the plunge to the intensified territorial dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands.
While it is not difficult for some 90% of American citizens to support the Japan-U.S. security treaty when there is no risk of a dispute between Japan and China, they cannot adopt such a stance when the risk of conflict becomes real, as they fear that the U.S. could become involved if a conflict over the islands in the East China Sea occurs, according to Samuels.
But the survey did not show pessimistic results alone, as only 9% of the citizens and 6% of the intellectuals considered it unnecessary to maintain the treaty, up only 2 and 3 points from the previous survey, respectively.
Therefore, opinions calling for the abolition of the treaty have hardly increased from the previous year, so Japanese diplomatic authorities consider that support for the treaty remains solid in the U.S.
The survey also found a sharp increase in people who do not know whether the treaty should be maintained -- six- and four-fold jumps, respectively, to 24% and 17% among the ordinary citizens and intellectuals.
In another interesting finding, nearly 90% of both citizens and intellectuals said the treaty is important to the U.S.
On the whole, the survey revealed complicated public sentiment about the treaty in the U.S. While the treaty is extremely important to the U.S. and should be maintained, the U.S. should not be involved in the Senkaku issue and other disputes.
The latest survey also asked which country is the most important partner for the U.S. in Asia, and found that Japan had lost the position to China among citizens as only 35% of them named Japan, down 15 points from the previous survey, while China was unchanged at 39%. Intellectuals regarded China as the most important U.S. partner in Asia for the fourth year in a row.
In the U.S., midterm elections will be held in November. Although diplomatic issues are unlikely to become a major point of contention, Washington will tend to be affected by public opinions more strongly than usual. Popular sentiments about Japan in the U.S. deserve close attention, though the Japanese public should not show nervous reactions to changes in them.