TOKYO — Japanese have become more welcoming to the U.S. military presence in their country over the past six years as fears spread that neighboring China and North Korea are threats to peace, an Associated Press-GfK poll has found.
The survey released Monday on Japanese views of other countries, security and the imperial family also showed that while about half of Japanese are positive about the U.S. and Germany, they are overwhelmingly negative or neutral toward immediate Asian neighbors China, Russia and North Korea. Opinions about South Korea are mixed.
Those attitudes, as well as results showing Japanese are reluctant to allow more foreign workers into the country, suggest a general wariness of outsiders. Some 46 percent are opposed to increasing the number of immigrants – more than double the share in favor of boosting their numbers – even though doing so would help offset the shrinking labor force as the population ages.
And while they gave their own elected leaders low marks, most Japanese think highly of the emperor and military.
Tokyo has cast a cautious eye toward China's increased military spending and more assertive stance on disputed islands in the region. Ties between the two countries deteriorated to their worst point in years last autumn when a Chinese fishing trawler and Japanese patrol vessels collided near islands controlled by Japan but claimed by both in the East China Sea.
China's state-run media have already issued warnings to new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for past statements suggesting that Beijing's military buildup is a regional security threat.
For protection, Japan relies on its own military and nearly 50,000 U.S. troops based in the country under a 51-year-old joint security pact. That arrangement received extra scrutiny last year when former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama sought – and ultimately failed – to move a controversial U.S. Marine base off the southern island of Okinawa.
American forces were also actively involved in humanitarian relief efforts after March's tsunami disaster.
Amid public alarm about China's assertiveness, support for the American military bases in Japan has grown to 57 percent, while 34 percent want them withdrawn. In a similar 2005 poll, Japanese were evenly divided on the issue at 47 percent.
"The U.S. military presence has received a greater acceptance, apparently because people think this region has grown more unstable than before," Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said Monday in response to the results.
China is viewed as a threat to world peace by nearly three-quarters of respondents, and about as many have a negative impression of the country – which is also Japan's largest trading partner. Unfavorable views of Chinese leader Hu Jintao outweigh favorable views by more than 11-to-1, the AP-GfK poll showed.
North Korea, meanwhile, is viewed as a threat by even more Japanese – 80 percent, up from 59 percent in 2005. The country, which fired missiles into waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan in 2005 and again in 2006, is viewed negatively by 94 percent. Its leader, Kim Jong Il, is disliked by nine in 10.
Many Japanese are supportive of their own military, called the Self-Defense Forces, with 74 percent trusting it to do the right thing all or most of the time.
But people were mixed over changing the constitution to give the military a greater international role, although more favored such a change – 38 percent – than opposed – 28 percent. About a third were neutral.
The Japanese Constitution, drawn up by a U.S. occupation force after World War II, prohibits the creation of an armed force that can be maintained for offensive purposes. But under pressure from the U.S. to play a larger role in regional security, Japan has become more involved in peacekeeping operations abroad. It also sent refueling ships to the Indian Ocean to help with the Afghan war.
Most Japanese continue to hold Emperor Akihito, who lacks any political power, in high esteem: 70 percent view him favorably and 65 percent feel the Imperial family still fits well with modern Japanese society.
Still, just 22 percent would favor giving the emperor power to set government policy, while 43 percent oppose such an expansion of imperial power. About a third are neutral.
President Barack Obama is seen positively by 41 percent of respondents, with the same number viewing him in a neutral way. Some 16 percent see him unfavorably. As a country, the United States is seen favorably by 49 percent, neutrally by 36 percent and unfavorably by 14 percent.
Germany garnered the smallest unfavorable rating – just 4 percent – with 48 percent giving the country a thumbs up. Chancellor Angela Merkel garnered a neutral rating from just over half the respondents, while 28 percent view her positively and 7 percent negatively.
Neighboring South Korea, whose television dramas and "K-pop" singers have become increasingly popular in Japan, isn't so popular itself, with 31 percent viewing the country positively and 27 percent negatively.
Russia, meanwhile, is viewed positively by just 11 percent and negatively by 44 percent.
Japan has come under fire internationally for its whale hunting, but the Japanese public narrowly favors whaling for commercial purposes, the survey showed. Fifty-two percent favor it, 35 percent are neutral and 13 percent are opposed. Far more men are in favor than women.
However, few – 12 percent – are deeply interested in eating whale meat themselves. Most – 66 percent_ have little or no interest in dining on whale.
Commercial whaling is banned under a 1986 moratorium but various exceptions have allowed Japan, as well as Iceland and Norway, to hunt whales anyway. Japan claims its hunts are for research purposes, though the meat from the killed whales mostly ends up in restaurants, stores and school lunches.
The AP-GfK telephone poll conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications surveyed 1,000 adults across Japan by landline telephone between July 29 and Aug. 10, and has a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.