By Juni Kim
Notoriously chilly relations between South Korea and Japan received encouraging news this week. In a new joint survey conducted by the South Korea-based East Asia Institute and the Japan-based Genron NPO, fewer South Koreans and Japanese hold negative impressions of each other than in previous years. South Korean unfavorable impressions of Japan decreased by 11.5 percentage from 72.5 percent in 2015 to 61 percent this year, while Japanese unfavorable impressions dropped by 7.8 percentage from 52.4 percent to 44.6 percent. The drop in negative views for both countries also corresponded with a slight bump in favorable views from a year ago (21.3 percent from 15.7 percent for South Korea, 29.1 percent from 23.8 percent for Japan).
The poll is in its fourth year, with 1,010 South Koreans and 1,000 Japanese participating in 2016.This year’s results mark the lowest unfavorable ratings South Koreans have had for Japan since the survey started. The think tanks touted, “The figures mean momentum is building up for a change in bilateral relations, although there still remains high levels of negative perception.”
Although the decrease in unfavorable views is hopeful, the survey results suggest there is still an uphill climb to mend mutual perceptions between South Koreans and Japanese. Controversial historical issues remain the main driver of negative perceptions for South Koreans. In the survey, 76.3 percent of South Koreans indicated that “Japan’s lack of remorse for historical invasions of South Korea” is the reason they hold a negative impression of Japan. This figure is similar to 2015 (74.0 percent) and 2014’s (76.8 percent) results. Likewise, the main driver for negative Japanese views of South Korea is “criticism of Japan over historical issues,” which 75.3 percent of Japanese respondents indicated was the reason they have a negative impression of South Korea.
Despite these steady rates, fewer South Koreans and Japanese attribute their negative perceptions to the “badwill” expressed by politicians of the neighboring country. Both countries saw a drop of over 10 percentage points (14.6 percent from 24.7 percent for South Korea, 17.9 percent from 28.1 percent for Japan) from 2015 to 2016 in those citing “badwill expressed by some politicians” toward their own country as the reason for holding negative impressions against the other country.
This drop may have been encouraged by reconciliation efforts made by the top political leaders of South Korea and Japan in 2015. South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held their first summit in over three years last November. The two countries also reached an agreement last December regarding the controversial issue of comfort women, though the decision is still hotly debated among South Korean and Japanese circles.
Historical issues are unlikely to be resolved overnight, but the survey results reveal a small but positive step in the right direction for bringing these two neighboring countries closer together.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). Jiwon Nam, an Intern at KEI and graduate student at the University of Maine, also contributed to this blog. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Moyan Brenn’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.