How Strong Is the U.S.-Japan Relationship?

The friendship between Washington and Tokyo has come a long way in 70 years, but a rising China could throw a wrench in the works.


This is a pivotal year in U.S.-Japan relations. As the two nations mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August, it is a moment for both the American and Japanese publics to reflect on the past — but also, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting the United States in late April, to take the temperature of the current bilateral relationship and to consider its future.

As both countries face the rising strategic and economic challenge posed by China, the United States is explicitly rebalancing its international posture toward Asia. Japan has fractious relations with U.S. ally South Korea over unresolved issues involving their mutual history, and with U.S. adversary China over both history and territorial disputes. At the same time, to the consternation of both Seoul and Beijing, Tokyo is debating a more active role in collective regional security. And the United States and Japan are the key economies in an unprecedented effort — known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — to broaden and deepen trade and investment among Pacific countries that account for more than one-third of the world’s GDP. How the American and Japanese people see these issues may go a long way toward framing the ongoing relationship of these onetime foes and now longtime allies.

Adversaries in World War II, fierce economic competitors in the 1980s and early 1990s, Americans and Japanese nonetheless share a deep mutual respect today. Roughly two-thirds of Americans trust Japan either a great deal (26 percent) or a fair amount (42 percent), according to a new Pew Research Center survey. And three-quarters of Japanese share a similar degree of trust of the United States, though their intensity is somewhat less (10 percent a great deal, 65 percent a fair amount).

There is a gender gap in how the two publics see each other. American men (76 percent) are more trusting of Japan than American women (59 percent), just as Japanese men (82 percent) voice greater trust in the United States than do Japanese women (68 percent). But there is no significant partisan difference in how Americans see Japan.

Looking ahead, Americans generally support keeping the U.S. relationship with Japan about where it is, both economically and strategically. When asked whether they would prefer the United States to be closer to Japan, less close, or about as close to Japan as it has been in recent years, 38 percent say closer, 45 percent say about as close, and only 13 percent would like to distance the United States from Japan. There is, however, a generation gap in viewing the future of the relationship: 41 percent of younger Americans would like to see closer ties, but only 27 percent of older Americans would. And there is partisan disagreement on the trajectory of the relationship with Japan: Democrats (41 percent) are more likely than Republicans (30 percent) to support closer ties.

China looms large in the minds of both Americans and Japanese in their consideration of the U.S.-Japan relationship. Only 30 percent of Americans and just 7 percent of Japanese trust China. One reason Americans may trust China more is that only 16 percent say they have heard a lot about territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries.

Americans are somewhat divided on whether the United States should be focusing more on Japan or on China when it comes to developing strong economic ties. Overall, a slightly larger share of Americans (43 percent) name China as the more important economic partner than Japan (36 percent). About one in eight Americans (12 percent) volunteered an alternative: that it is important to have a strong economic relationship with both.

Americans’ views on the relative importance of economic ties with Japan and China divide along generational, racial, and partisan lines. In particular, young Americans believe it is more important to have a strong economic relationship with China: About six in 10 Americans ages 18 to 29 hold this view. Less than half as many people 65 years of age and older agree. At the same time, twice as many older Americans as younger ones believe a strong economic relationship with Japan is a priority. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to want better relations with Japan. Meanwhile, Democrats are more likely than the GOP to want stronger economic ties with China.

There are no such divisions in Japan on future economic relations with China and the United States. Nearly eight in 10 Japanese (78 percent) say it is more important to have strong economic connections with the United States, while only 10 percent cite China. Young Japanese are more likely than their elders to back a deeper economic relationship with the United States, but the preference for the United States among all age groups, and among all demographic subgroups in Japan, is still overwhelming.

Six in 10 Americans think China’s rise makes relations between the United States and Japan more important. Just 6 percent say it makes ties less important and 29 percent believe it makes no difference. Men (67 percent) are more likely than women (54 percent), whites (67 percent) more than non-whites (48 percent), and Americans 65 years of age and older (65 percent) more likely than those ages 18 to 29 (51 percent) to hold the view that the Japan relationship is now more important because of China’s rise.

There is also a disparity in how Americans and Japanese view South Korea. Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans trust Seoul, but only 21 percent of Japanese do. Much of this Japanese-Korean enmity arises out of the unresolved legacy of Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea through the end of World War II. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 98 percent of South Koreans felt that Japan had not apologized sufficiently for its activities in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the contentious issues is the Japanese army’s use of Korean “comfort women” — women forced into prostitution — which many Koreans believe Japan has not atoned for sufficiently. The Korean-American community has made this issue a cause célèbre and it may well come up in the press during Abe’s late-April visit to the United States. Yet 57 percent of Americans say they have never heard of the tensions over the comfort women issue.

At the same time, the American public is divided over whether Japan should play a more active military role in helping to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region: 47 percent would like to see Tokyo take a more active role and 43 percent would prefer that Japan limit its role. Americans who trust Japan are more likely to want to see Tokyo play a greater strategic role in the region. And Americans who do not trust China are also more likely to want to see Japan take on more of the military burden in Asia.

Among Japanese, there is little desire for their country to play a greater part in the region’s security. Just over two-thirds (68 percent) want Japan to limit its military activity. Only 23 percent want the country to take on more defense responsibilities. Notably, it is Japanese men (30 percent) more than women (17 percent) who would like to see a more forward-leaning national strategic posture.

Japan and the United States have deeply rooted economic and strategic bonds. But, since both nations are functioning democracies, those ties also depend on the attitudes of the Japanese and American people. Seven decades after a horrific war, and despite serious trade frictions in the past and a new challenge posed by China, Americans and Japanese share a mutual trust and respect that is the glue of the relationship.


Bruce Stokes is the executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Task Force: Together or Alone? Choices and Strategies for Transatlantic Relations for 2021 and Beyond. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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