The Impact of the United States in Promoting Japanese Citizens’ Willingness to Cooperate with South Korea: A Survey Experiment in the Context of the “China Threat”
Volume 23, Issue 2 (Article 6 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 17 August 2023.
The relationship between Japan and South Korea has been constantly conflictual due to the “history issue.” Yet, the presence of the United States in the region can significantly transform dynamics underlying these two states. This study focuses on the critical importance of the US in managing the relationship between Japan and South Korea. If the United States were to facilitate Japan-South Korea relations by emphasising state identity as democracies, one can hypothesise that Japanese citizens will become more willing to cooperate with South Korea in countering China’s threat. Findings from the survey experiment show that a US attempt to improve Japanese-South Korean relations would be highly effective in enhancing positive perceptions of South Korea among Japanese citizens. Dissecting the process through which Japanese citizens develop their perceptions of international relations, the present research makes an important contribution to the literature of constructivism that emphasises the role of identity.
Keywords: Japan, South Korea, international relations, China
East Asia is an important region in the world that can have a grave impact on the international system. In recent years, there have been critical changes that significantly affect international relations in the region. The dramatic growth of China can drastically shift the underlying dynamics of the international system. Backed by continuous economic growth, China has been steadily emerging as one of the most powerful states in the world (Cheng and Lee, 2021). As China gains more strength, its behaviour in the region has become more aggressive, thus fueling the “China threat” perspective (Roy, 1996; Shambaugh, 2003). Observers have warned that China may pose a serious threat against democracies in the world (BBC, 2020, December 4; Lee and Mozur, 2020).
While China’s behaviour increasingly becomes aggressive, the relationship between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) has been seriously strained in recent years. The situation surrounding these two states has been constantly shaky. Due to the “history issue” rooted in World War II, Japan-South Korea relations have seriously deteriorated (Lee, 2013; Hwang, 2003; Suzuki, 2015). For instance, the controversy over history textbooks in Japan has disrupted political relations between the two states (Yi, 2009). In the same manner, the issue of “comfort women” has continued to be a source of conflict that has deeply divided them (Japan Times, 2021, January 8; 2021, January 23). The Japan-South Korea relationship was also critically exacerbated in 2019 when South Korea demanded compensation for the damages of forced labour during World War II (Lee, 2019). Observers have noted that the current situation surrounding Japan-South Korea relations has been the worst since the end of World War II (Yomiuri Shimbun, 2020, June 8).
One critical question in this context is the role of the United States in the relationship between Japan and the ROK. Scholars have suggested the importance of the trilateral relations among the United States, Japan, and South Korea (Hinata-Yamaguchi, 2016; Jo and Mo, 2010; Ohara, 2016). In particular, historical involvement of the United States in the region has critical implications for Japan-South Korea relations. Cha (1999) contends that Japan and South Korea have formed a “quasi-alliance” since they have the United States as the common ally. According to Cha (1999), concerns for “entrapment” and “abandonment” by the United States have been the most important factor determining the nature of interactions between Japan and the ROK. Additionally, Glosserman and Snyder (2015) suggest that the United States can facilitate cooperation between Japan and South Korea, since they share democratic values. As this view represents, the United States can potentially play an essential role in managing relations among its key allies in East Asia.
Despite the critical role of the United States in the region, not enough attention has been paid to the impact of the United States on the relationship between Japan and South Korea. The lack of attention has been especially serious in research at the individual level. Very few studies have systematically addressed how the presence of the United States can influence citizens’ perceptions of their counterparts in Japan and South Korea. The present research addresses the void in the literature. The main goal of this study is to examine how the United States can shape Japanese citizens’ perceptions of South Korea in the face of the emerging threat from China.
In tackling this question, this study relies on insights from previous studies focusing on the issue of identity and democratic values. In the field of international relations, the realist perspective emphasises the importance of power and material capability (Mearsheimer, 2001; Waltz, 1979). Realists argue power and material capability determine the nature of state interactions, and that differences in regime types would not matter in international relations Mearsheimer, 2001; Waltz, 1979). Unlike realists, liberals contend that regime types can significantly affect the way states interact with each other (Doyle, 2005; Owen, 1994; Russett and O’Neal, 2001). The literature of “democratic peace” is exemplary in this regard. Scholars have widely shown that democracies tend to behave peacefully toward other democracies (Doyle, 2005; Owen, 1994; Russett and O’Neal, 2001). Closely related to this perspective, Owen (2002) contends that democracies tend to form a “transnational liberalism” led by the United States. These implications are consistent with the constructivist perspective, which highlight the importance of identity and values as factors determining state behaviour in the international system (Wendt, 1999). These scholars emphasise that regime types play an essential role in international relations, and the importance of the United States as a leader of the liberal camp is undeniable (Owen, 2002).
Insights from previous studies generate critical implications regarding the way the United States can affect Japanese citizens’ perceptions of South Korea. This study focuses on the critical importance of the US in managing the relationship between Japan and South Korea. If the United States were to facilitate Japan-South Korea relations by emphasising state identity as democracies, one can hypothesise that Japanese citizens would become more willing to cooperate with South Korea in countering China’s threat. To test this hypothesis, this study conducted a survey experiment in Japan. Findings from the survey experiment show that a US attempt to improve Japanese-South Korean relations would be highly effective in enhancing positive perceptions of South Korea among Japanese citizens. Dissecting the process through which Japanese citizens develop their perceptions of international relations, the present research makes an important contribution to the literature of constructivism that emphasises the importance of identity and values in the field of international relations (Ashizawa, 2008; Hemmer and Katzenstein, 2002; Hopf, 2002; Rousseau, 2006; Wendt, 1999). Consequently, this study generates critical implications that are essential in understanding the current discourse in East Asia.
This study proceeds as follows. First, we analyse the troubled relationship between Japan and South Korea. The second section theorises how the presence of the United States could promote Japan-South Korea relations. Third, we explain the data and research design. Fourth, we conduct a statistical analysis and discuss the results. Finally, we conclude this study by summarising the findings and suggesting directions for future studies.
Japan and South Korea: Troubled Relations
The relationship between Japan and South Korea has been constantly conflictual. The most important source of conflict is the history issue rooted in World War II (Hwang, 2003; Suzuki, 2015). Lee (2013) contends that these states are not likely to achieve higher levels of cooperation in the security arena because of this issue. Every time the Japanese government attempted to downplay the atrocities Japan committed during World War II, the South Korean government expressed a strong opposition against Japan’s motion. One of the most important issues in this regard is the controversy over history textbooks in Japan. The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Tsukurukai) published a history textbook that tried to glorify Japanese history while omitting descriptions of atrocities by the Japanese during World War II, and this textbook was approved by the Ministry of Education in Japan in 2001 (Schneider, 2008). Although the number of schools that actually adopted this textbook was extremely low, the fact that the Ministry of Education approved this textbook led to a furious reaction from the South Korean side, critically disturbing relations between the two states (Yi, 2009).
The issue surrounding comfort women has been equally controversial. Activists in South Korea have tried to build statues of a comfort woman in different locations (Sang-Hun, 2016). However, the Japanese government has expressed opposition toward this motion (Japan Times, 2021, January 8; 2021, January 23). The tension over this matter significantly escalated in 2018 when the South Korean government decided to dismantle the Comfort Women Reconciliation and Healing Foundation. Although both the Japanese government and the South Korean government agreed to establish this foundation in 2015 to provide compensation to the victims, the foundation was abruptly dissolved by South Korea (Sang-Hun, 2018). There have been no signs of improvement on this matter, and neither side seems to be compromising regarding the issue of comfort women. As these cases show, the history issue has repeatedly strained Japan-South Korea relations.
The tension over the history issue spilled over into the security arena. In 2016, the Japanese government and the South Korean government agreed to establish the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) that would allow them to share intelligence over security issues. However, the South Korean government abruptly notified its intention to discontinue the GSOMIA in 2019 (Sang-Hun et al., 2019). One can speculate that the lingering hostility between Japan and South Korea pushed the South Korean government to make the decision. Although Seoul decided not to end the GSOMIA at the last minute, this issue clearly represented the distrust on the South Korean side toward the Japanese government. In a similar manner, an aircraft from the Korean Navy allegedly locked its radar on a Japanese warplane (Kajimoto and Shin, 2018). The Japanese government claimed this would signify an “extremely dangerous” motion against Japan, which could potentially lead to an armed clash between the two states (Kajimoto and Shin, 2018). While the Korean government denied the allegation, this incident inevitably instilled deep distrust toward the South Korean government among officials in Japan (Lee, 2018). It seems that the tension over the history issue has subsequently affected decisions in the security arena.
As has been shown above, political elites in both governments engage in intense debates over the history issue. While elites are certainly in charge of implementing foreign policy, it is imperative to pay attention to public opinion. Consistent with deteriorating relations between Japan and South Korea, the general public in both states has grown skeptical of their counterparts. The Genron NPO and East Asia Institute (EAI) implemented surveys both in Japan and South Korea on a wide range of topics. Their findings reveal that the public in both states tends to be hostile toward the other state. According to the Genron NPO (2019, pp. 7-8), 63.5 percent of the respondents in Japan described the bilateral relations with South Korea as “bad” whereas 66.1 percent of the respondents in South Korea chose the same option. It is important to note that these numbers were significantly higher than those in previous years. The same survey also indicated that a significant portion of the respondents in both states tend to be pessimistic about future relations. In the case of Japan, the survey showed that only 12.1 percent of the respondents mentioned that future relations “will improve” or “will probably improve” whereas 23.4 percent of those in South Korea answered the same way (Genron NPO, 2019, pp. 7-8). These figures certainly show mutual negative perceptions between Japan and South Korea.
As expected, these negative attitudes toward each other seem to be closely related to the history issue. When the survey tapped into the question of why respondents saw their counterpart negatively, 52.1 percent of the respondents in Japan chose “South Korea’s continued criticism against Japan on historical issues” (Genron NPO, 2019, pp. 4-5). In the same way, 76.1 percent of the respondents in South Korea picked “no remorse over Japan’s past wartime aggression” (Genron NPO, 2019, pp. 4-5). These figures display persistent patterns regarding public opinion in both countries. While respondents in Japan are frustrated with the continuous demands for apology from South Korea, those in South Korea do not feel that the Japanese have apologised enough for their atrocities during World War II. Given these findings, it is obvious that the history issue has been the most importance source of conflict in the Japan-South Korea relationship.
Along with the way domestic politics revolve in both countries, it is clear that identity issues have emerged as one of the most critical dynamics that determine the future of the relationship between Japan and South Korea (Glosserman and Snyder, 2015). Since identity issues are at the core of the dispute over various issues, the conflict tends to be deep and persistent with few signs of improvement. Recognising the nature of the conflict surrounding Japan-South Korea relations, it is important to address identity issues in the region. The next section discusses how the United States can potentially bring these two states together despite enduring hostility.
The United States and the Trilateral Relationship in East Asia
The United States has been a key actor in East Asia. Following the end of World War II in 1945, the United States occupied Japan and transformed the country into a democracy. After Japan gained independence in 1952, the United States remained in Japan and played a critical role in its security. While Japan enjoyed a prolonged period of economic growth, the United States was equally instrumental in providing security for South Korea. The United States was deeply involved in the Korean War that broke out in 1950. In the face of a constant threat from North Korea, the US presence in the Korean peninsula has significantly contributed to the stabilisation of the region. Given the critical importance of the United States, it is practically impossible to envision a regional order without US troops stationed in Japan and South Korea.
The role of the United States has not been confined to the borders of Japan and South Korea. For instance, the Obama administration emphasised the importance of the Asia-Pacific region, calling for “Rebalancing to Asia” and a “Pivot to the Pacific” (Manyin et al., 2012). Along with this perspective, Hilary Clinton (2011) has noted that the United States would remain committed to the Asia-Pacific region since the United States has vital interest in the region. The importance of the Asia-Pacific region was equally recognised by the Trump administration. Although observers suggested that the Trump administration significantly undermined the effectiveness of US foreign policy in the region, the United States continued to commit its troops in Japan and South Korea. Consistent with this perspective, the Biden administration has already clarified the US stance in Asia by trying to boost solidarity among US allies in the region (Jakes et al., 2021). As China gains further strength in the international system, it has become more important for the United States to maintain its commitment in the region. For this reason, it is essential for the United States to deal strategically with its allies in East Asia.
In approaching East Asia, one of the most important tasks for the United States is to manage its bilateral relations with Japan and South Korea respectively. After the end of World War II, the United States chose to establish multilateral institutions in the security arena in Europe, which led to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). While the United States decided to form NATO, it did not adopt the same approach in Asia. Instead, the United States employed a bilateral approach to each state in the region. Scholars have suggested various reasons why the United States did not construct multilateral security institutions in Asia. Cha (2010) contends that the United States decided to pursue a “powerplay” in East Asia to exert a maximum degree of control over allies’ policies. Hemmer and Katzenstein (2002) argue that the United States did not see Asian states as peers, which prevented the United States from establishing multilateral security institutions.
Although the United States avoided forming multilateral security institutions in Asia, the US-Japan security alliance has been robust over an extended period. The United States and Japan have steadily strengthened their alliance in the post-World War II era (Packard, 2010). Observers have contended Japan has been deeply dependent on the United States, and that the US presence in Japan was an indispensable condition for the Japanese to foster a pacifist security culture (Miyashita, 2007). Machida (2018) shows that the anti-nuclear stance among Japanese citizens is dependent on their faith in the US commitment in Japan. In the same way, the US-South Korea alliance has been highly resilient. Shin (2012) contends that both Seoul and Washington understand the importance of the security arrangements between the United States and the ROK. Similarly, Glosserman (2012) highlights the importance of the US-ROK alliance in the security of the Asia-Pacific region. For Japan and South Korea, the most important element concerning the US role in the region is the issue of nuclear deterrence. Since neither Japan nor South Korea possess nuclear weapons, they are deeply dependent on the deterrence that the United States provides for them (Santoro and Glosserman, 2013). Without the presence of a “nuclear umbrella” under the United States, both Japan and South Korea would be highly vulnerable to threats from other states in the region (DiFilippo, 2006; Roehrig, 2017).
Given the importance of the United States in the region, there is no question that the trilateral relationship among the United States, Japan, and South Korea critically determines the underlying dynamics in East Asia. Jo and Mo (2010) contend that trilateral cooperation among these states can significantly contribute to the stability of the region. Furthermore, Jo and Mo (2010) suggest that trilateralism among these states can potentially address a broader range of issues including democracy and human rights. Some maintain that the benefit of trilateral cooperation extends beyond the three states, impacting states in the broader Asia-Pacific region (Hinata-Yamaguchi, 2016; Ohara, 2016). Although the trilateral relations do not have formal arrangements of security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, it is certain that interactions among these three actors significantly determine the fate of the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite its importance, this trilateral relationship is not free from problems. One critical factor that can undermine the solidarity of the relationship is the tension between Japan and South Korea. As has been discussed above, Japan-South Korea relations have been shaky due to the history issue (Lee, 2013). The conflict between these states can have serious implications for the United States as well. Although both Japan and South Korea decided to maintain the GSOMI, the political tension over this matter critically undermined the deterrence against North Korea and China, thus seriously hurting US interests in the region (Yoshida and Johnson, 2019). As one can see in the issue of the GSOMI, the persistent conflict between Japan and South Korea can erode the effectiveness of trilateral relations among the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Therefore, observers emphasise the imperative need to enhance the solidarity of these three states in East Asia.
Recognising that the tension between Japan and South Korea can have a critical effect on the prospect of deterrence in East Asia, it is important to consider how it becomes possible to facilitate cooperation between these two states. In this context, one cannot overstate the importance of the United States as a crucial actor on this matter. Although Japan and South Korea are not formal allies, scholars have contended that these two states form a “quasi-alliance” (Cha, 1999). Cha (1999) argues perceptions of “entrapment” and “abandonment” by the United States are the most important factors determining cooperative or conflictual relations between Japan and South Korea. Accordingly, when Japan and South Korea perceive that the United States is distancing itself from East Asia, they are more willing to cooperate with each other (Cha, 1999). As this perspective indicates, there is no question that the United States is a pivotal actor that can critically influence the direction of the Japan-South Korea relations.
Scholars have contended that the United States is capable of influencing the relationship between Japan and South Korea. Manyin (2015) suggests that there are two main options for the United States regarding the conflict between Japan and South Korea: a “noninterference option” and “intervention options.”
According to Manyin (2015), “intervention options” can be further divided into the following four choices: “role model,” “referee,” “mediator,” and “commissioner.” Although there are pros and cons of each approach, Manyn (2015) notes that not intervening in the conflictual relationship between Japan and South Korea is nonviable. Cha and Friedhoff (2013) note: “The United States cannot ‘pivot’ to Asia while remaining silent on the historical issues that most vex the region. Resolving these tensions would not only demonstrate America’s influence but would also remove a barrier to the further expansion of American power in the region.” Consistent with this perspective, Shin (2010) maintains that the United States can potentially bring Japan and South Korea together given its continuous involvement in the region.
Recognising the critical role of the United States in East Asia, it is imperative to analyse how citizens in Japan and South Korea perceive the prospect of cooperation with their counterpart. For this matter, one needs carefully to examine the public opinion data collected both in Japan and South Korea. Genron NPO (2019, pp. 27-28) posed the following question: “Do you think that Japan and South Korea should pursue defense cooperation?” For this question, 12.8 percent of the respondents in Japan chose the option of “Yes” whereas the figure among South Korean respondents is 20.4 percent (Genron NPO, 2019, pp. 27-28). These figures indicate that respondents in both countries are reluctant to cooperate with each other.
However, the picture drastically changes when the United States is thrown into the equation. Despite the persistent hostility between Japan and South Korea, it is possible that the broken relationship between Japan and South Korea may be able to find a common ground through the presence of the United States. Regarding this point, Genron NPO (2019, pp. 27-28) asked the following question: “Do you think that the other country’s military alliance with the United States is necessary for your country’s own national security?” For this question, 40.4 percent of respondents in Japan chose the answer of “necessary” while 58.6 percent of respondents in South Korea answered this question in the same way (Genron NPO, 2019, pp. 27-28). In a similar manner, the Genron NPO (2019, pp. 27-28) asked the following question: “Do you agree or disagree with the strengthening of Japan-South Korea-United States trilateral military-security cooperation?” 43.3 percent of the respondents in Japan answered this question with either “Yes, strongly agree” or “Yes, somewhat agree” and the figure among respondents in South Korea was 66.2 percent (Genron NPO, 2019, pp. 27-28). These figures show that the presence of the United States can significantly change citizens’ perceptions of security cooperation between Japan and South Korea.
In understanding the importance of the United States in managing the trilateral relationship, research conducted by Asaba et al. (2020) is noteworthy. They have examined the impact of a short video created by the US military describing how the three states—the United States, Japan, and South Korea—can effectively cooperate in countering the threat from North Korea. According to them, respondents in Japan who were exposed to this video were more willing to cooperate with South Korea, and the same finding was reported among the South Korean respondents. Their findings highlight the importance of the trilateral relationship in tackling the problem of North Korea. As Asaba et al. (2020) indicate, it is important to recognise that the presence of the United States can significantly change Japanese citizens’ attitudes toward South Korea. What is central in this finding is the critical importance of identity issues. One can assume that the video created by the US military induced a sense of a shared identity among citizens in Japan and South Korea, thus enhancing their willingness to cooperate with their counterpart (Asaba et al., 2020).
The essential role of identity has been widely recognised in the field of international relations. While the realist perspective emphasises the importance of power and material capability (Mearsheimer, 2001; Waltz, 1979), constructivism underlines the essential role of identity and shared interest among actors (Checkel, 1999; Wendt, 1999). Adopting this framework, studies have widely examined implications of state identity in the context of East Asia. Ashizawa (2008) explains how the concept of state identity influenced the formation of international security institutions in Asia: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum. In the same vein, Terada (2003) argues that establishing the concept of “East Asia” is a critical factor that significantly affected the dynamics of regional institutions. Similarly, Lee (2006) contends that Japan’s initiative to create the Asian Monetary Fund (AMF) can be effectively explained by Japan’s identity in forming economic models. Furthermore, research suggests that identity plays an essential role in the issue of threat perceptions. According to Rousseau and Garcia-Retamero (2007), individuals are less likely to perceive other states as threatening if their regime types are similar to their own. Consistent with the constructivist perspective, these studies highlight the importance of identity as a determinant of international relations.
Building upon the insights from these studies, one can theorise how the United States can significantly influence Japanese citizens’ perceptions of South Korea. If the United States can successfully create a shared identity that bridges the difference between Japan and South Korea, this will significantly reduce threat perceptions among citizens in both states. Although there are multiple ways through which the United States can achieve this goal, one of the most important approaches is to emphasise their common characteristics as democratic states. If the United States can generate the perceptions that both Japan and South Korea are democratic states that share interest in the region, it is possible to predict that Japanese citizens will perceive South Korea as a potential ally.
Research has analysed the importance of shared values in exploring the issue of the durability of alliances. Without a doubt, some of the most important values that they can share are democratic values. Wallander (2018) notes that declining democratic values within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has critically undermined solidarity among member states. This issue can be relevant in examining the relationship among states in East Asia. In analysing the US-Japan alliance in the post-Cold War era where threats from the USSR faded, Suzuki (2010) emphasises the importance of democratic values and international norms in keeping the alliance together. Regarding this point, Suzuki (2010, p. 497) notes:
Shared values also provide states with a cognitive foundation to develop homogeneous political interests and threat perceptions, given that they acquire similar sets of information about external environments. From a purely rationalist perspective, shared values effectively overlap common threat perceptions and thus hardly constitute an independent focal factor for alliance formation and coordination.
As the above quote notes, shared democratic values have served to keep the alliance between the United States and Japan together even after common threat perceptions were eliminated. Glosserman and Snyder (2015, p. 4) note:
US analysts took comfort in the fact that South Korea and Japan as fellow democracies were pursuing common values, and those values would ultimately strengthen the alliances as well as provide the glue for cooperation between Japan and South Korea as quasi allies. The George W. Bush administration even attempted to frame alliance cooperation with both Japan and South Korea as a function of common value as it attempted to expand and apply alliance cooperation to both regional and global issues.
Recognising the important role that the United States can potentially play in facilitating reconciliation between Japan and South Korea, it is essential to consider concrete actions that the United States can take on this matter. Klinger (2012) contends that the United States should establish a “Trilateral Security Initiative” in which foreign and defense ministers from the United States, Japan, and South Korea can jointly discuss security issues, which can promote the development of a shared vision for the future.
Recent interactions among the United States, Japan, and South Korea underline the importance of democratic values. The Biden administration has already expressed its intention to strengthen its alliances in East Asia to counter the emerging threat from China (Jakes et al., 2021). The underlying value that highlights his stance is the importance of democracy and human rights (Crowley, 2021; Mason, 2021; Rogers and Sanger, 2021). When Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese Prime Minister at the time, first met with Biden in early 2021, both leaders reiterated the importance of democracy and human rights while stressing the solidarity of the US-Japan Security Alliance (Mainichi Shimbun, 2021, April 17; Rogers and Sanger, 2021). In addition to biliteral ties between the United States and its allies, it is essential that the United States play a crucial role in managing relations among its key allies. Some observers express that the United States needs to take initiative in facilitating the relationship between Japan and South Korea (Harold, 2021). Toward this goal, the United States can utilise democratic values as a political tool through which it can manage Japan-South Korea relations (Mainichi Shimbun, 2021, April 17; Rogers and Sanger, 2021).
These developments in the region generate critical implications regarding the role of the United States. Given the extensive involvement of the United States in the region, there is no question that the United States exerts tremendous influence over its key allies. It is reasonable to assume that the presence of the United States can powerfully shape Japanese citizens’ perceptions of South Korea. There is no doubt that the United States can facilitate the possibility of cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Accordingly, one can hypothesise that Japanese citizens will become more willing to cooperate with South Korea if the United States tries to promote the relationship between Japan and South Korea. By emphasising the importance of the dialogue that both Japan and South Korea are democracies with shared values, it becomes possible that the United States can bring these two states together.
Hypothesis: Japanese citizens will be more willing to work with South Korea in countering the threat from China if the United States is committed to facilitate the Japan-South Korea relationship through the dialogue that revolves around democracy in the region.
As the hypothesis above shows, it is critical to analyse how the United States can influence the dynamics between Japan and South Korea through the discourse of democratic values and human rights. The next section explains the research design that makes it possible to systematically investigate this matter.
Research Design and Empirical Analysis
The hypothesis above is concerned about the role of the United States in facilitating the relationship between Japan and South Korea. The focus of the hypothesis is on Japanese citizens’ perceptions of South Korea at the individual level. To test the hypothesis, it is necessary to obtain reliable individual-level data in Japan. For this purpose, I conducted a survey experiment online in Japan, which was specifically tailored for this study. One of the critical challenges in conducting a survey is to collect enough samples. To overcome this problem, I utilised the crowdsourcing service provided by CrowdWorks, which is one of the most popular outsourcing companies in Japan. I recruited the subjects who were willing to be in the survey experiment through CrowdWorks. The subjects were compensated for their participation in the survey experiment. To participate in the study, respondents had to meet the following two criteria: (1) they were at least 20 years old at the time of the survey and (2) they were Japanese citizens who resided in Japan. Those who met these two criteria took the survey experiment in Qualtrics embedded in CrowdWorks.
The survey experiment was conducted during December 4-5, 2020. The number of responses was 418. The proportion of male respondents was 43.03 percent while that of female respondents was 56.97 percent. In terms of educational attainment, 54.96 percent of the respondents had bachelor’s degrees or higher. Regarding age, 58.5 percent of the respondents were 40 years old or younger. Given the fact that responses were collected through the online outsourcing company, it was inevitable that the survey attracted relatively younger respondents. While the subjects were not entirely representative of the Japanese population, this does not pose a critical problem. As long as the statistical analysis detects a significant relationship between the dependent variable and the independent variable, the skewness of the sample should not undermine the effectiveness of the statistical analysis.
This method of survey experiment has been widely adopted in different disciplines. Survey experiments can be useful in drawing causal inference by randomly assigning stimuli. Qualtrics is equipped with the function of random assignment. By utilising this function, I divided the respondents into two groups: the control group and the treatment group. Respondents in both groups were shown a simple description of international relations in East Asia as described below:
International relations in East Asia have been going through drastic changes. China is emerging as a powerful state in the international system, and some say that China is becoming more belligerent in its claim over the Senkaku Islands. On a different front, Japan and South Korea have recently faced various challenges, and the tension between these two states has significantly escalated.
In addition to this description, respondents in the treatment group were exposed to an additional stimulus highlighting the role of the United States in safeguarding democracies in the region:
Witnessing the situation, the United States emphasises that Japan and South Korea should cooperate on security issues because both countries share democratic values. Indeed, the United States may launch a forum so Japan and South Korea can engage in constructive discussions regarding the future of democracies in the region.
After respondents in both groups were exposed to their respective stimuli, they were asked about the possibility of cooperation with South Korea as shown below:
Which of the following strategies would you prefer on tackling China’s threat?
(a) Japan should cooperate with South Korea in order to address the threat from China.
(b) Japan does not have to cooperate with South Korea even if Japan is exposed to the threat from China.
(c) Don’t know/refuse to answer
Subjects who answered that Japan should cooperate with South Korea were assigned with the value of 1, and those who did not see the need to work with South Korea were given the value of 0. Respondents who chose “Don’t know/ refuse to answer” were coded as missing values. One can expect that subjects in the treatment group are more likely to express their desire to work with South Korea since they were exposed to the scenario where the United States seeks to promote a shared identity between Japan and South Korea as democratic states.
To test the hypothesis suggested above, it is necessary systematically to conduct a statistical analysis. The first analysis is a T-test on Japanese citizens’ willingness to cooperate with South Korea. Table 1 indicates the result of the T-test.
Table 1. T-Test Results
Figure 1. Willingness to Cooperate with South Korea
A T-test makes it possible to compare means across two groups. As the table shows, the mean for the control group is 0.333 whereas that for the treatment group is 0.658, which suggests that the subjects in the treatment group are more willing to cooperate with South Korea. The T-test shows that the difference between these two groups is statistically significant (two-tailed, p<0.001). These results clearly show that the stimulus highlighting the important role of the United States induces stronger willingness to cooperate with South Korea among Japanese citizens. Further to illustrate the impact of the stimulus in the treatment group, I created Figure 1, which displays the confidence intervals for the means across these two groups. The analysis on Figure 1 reveals results consistent with the implications from Table 1. Figure 1 indicates that the confidence intervals for the subjects in the treatment group are significantly higher than those in the control group. The analysis of the data suggests that the stimulus in the survey experiment significantly enhances Japanese citizens’ willingness to cooperate with South Korea. As the hypothesis states, one can speculate that a US attempt to invoke a shared identity as democratic states makes Japanese citizens more accommodating toward the possibility of cooperation with South Korea.
In addition to the analysis of means across these two groups, it is necessary to conduct a multivariate analysis controlling for a series of potentially confounding factors. The statistical analysis takes national pride into account. Studies have indicated that nationalism can critically affect dynamics of international relations (Schrock-Jacobson, 2012; Van Evera, 1994). This has been especially the case in the Japan-South Korea relationship where the history issue has repeatedly emerged as a source of conflict (Hwang, 2003; Lee, 2013; Suzuki, 2015). One can hypothesise that Japanese citizens who display higher levels of national pride are less likely to cooperate with South Korea. The survey measures levels of national pride by posing the following question: “I am proud to be a Japanese citizen.”  I have coded this variable so that higher values indicate stronger national pride. Along with national pride, the analysis controls for respondents’ threat perceptions. Previous studies have suggested that threat perceptions significantly influence individuals’ perceptions of international relations (Gordon and Adrian, 2001; Hughes, 2009). The statistical analysis in this study considers threat perceptions from three perspectives: China as an economic threat, China as a military threat, and the likelihood of conflict over the Senkaku Islands. Since the hypothesis above focuses on how Japanese citizens perceive South Korea in the face of China’s threat, these variables are expected to influence respondents’ behaviour. One can hypothesise that higher levels of threat perceptions tend to boost Japanese citizens’ willingness to cooperate with South Korea.
I also controlled for a series of demographic variables. First, it is important to account for gender. Studies have indicated that gender can significantly shape respondents’ orientations to defense issues (Eichenberg, 2003). Also, evidence shows that women in Japan tend to be more favourable to Korean pop culture (Takeda, 2011). One can predict that gender significantly shapes respondents’ policy orientations toward South Koreas. In addition to gender, the statistical analysis controls for respondents’ age. Sasada (2006) contends that younger generations in Japan tend to be more comfortable with discussing defense issues. Also, Iida et al. (2012) maintain that younger Japanese citizens are more willing to support the use of force over the territorial dispute with China. Therefore, it is essential to control for respondents’ age in the statistical analysis. Finally, the statistical analysis considers respondents’ educational attainment. The Japanese educational system emphasises the importance of peace (Murakami, 2009). Peace education in Japan highlights the importance of war memories, and studies show that war memories can significantly affect Japanese citizens’ views toward security issues (Machida, 2021, 2022). While it is difficult to hypothesise how educational attainment shapes respondents’ attitudes toward South Korea, it is necessary to consider this factor. Controlling for these demographic factors, the statistical analysis systematically explores factors that can significantly shape Japanese citizens’ attitudes toward South Korea in countering China’s threat.
Table 2. Analysis of Cooperation with South Korea.
Since the dependent variable is not a continuous variable, it is not appropriate to employ an Ordinary Least Squared (OLS) analysis. Considering that the dependent variable is an ordinal variable, I adopted an ordered probit analysis. Table 2 displays the result of the analysis. The variable of our interest is the stimulus in the experiment, which is coded as 1 (presence of the stimulus) or 0 (otherwise). Consistent with the hypothesis above, this variable indicates a statistically significant effect on the dependent variable (p<0.001). Its positive coefficient suggests that the presence of the stimulus significantly boosts respondents’ willingness to cooperate with South Korea. One can speculate that the US initiative to promote dialogue between Japan and South Korea significantly enhances Japanese citizens’ desire to work with South Korea. Because the US intervention highlighted the importance of state identity as democratic states in East Asia, the stimulus significantly induces a sense of a shared identity between Japan and South Korea, thus leading to more open attitudes toward cooperation with South Korea. In this way, it is possible to verify the importance of US intervention in facilitating the Japan-South Korea relationship even after controlling for a series of potentially confounding factors.
In addition to the key independent variable, it is important to analyse the impact of other variables. Among the variables in the analysis, only gender shows a statistically significant effect on the dependent variable (p<0.05). Its negative coefficient suggests that male respondents are less willing to cooperate with South Korea. One can speculate that males tend to be more hostile to South Korea, thus avoiding the option of working with South Korea in countering China’s threat. Also, it may be the case that women are more likely to be favourable to South Korea since they tend to be more attracted to Korean culture (Takeda, 2011). While gender shows a statistically significant effect, the statistical analysis fails to detect a significant effect of other variables. None of the variables capturing threat perceptions of China indicate a significant result, and demographic variables other than gender do not show a significant effect on the dependent variable. It is the presence of US intervention, not threat perceptions among respondents, that determines Japanese citizens’ willingness to cooperate with South Korea. These results verify the important impact of US intervention in facilitating the relationship between Japan and South Korea. It is likely that US intervention emphasising state identity as democratic states can significantly change Japanese citizens’ perceptions of South Korea, thus boosting their willingness to work with South Korea in countering China’s threat. Findings from the statistical analysis consistently verify the essential role of the United States in managing the tension between Japan and South Korea.
The relationship between Japan and South Korea has been constantly shaky due to the history issue rooted in World War II (Hwang, 2003; Lee, 2013; Suzuki, 2015). Despite conflictual relations between these two states, there is a possibility that Japan and South Korea can achieve security cooperation in the face of an emerging threat from China. One crucial factor determining the course of the Japan-South Korea relationship is the presence of the United States in the region. If the United States can successfully reduce the tension between Japan and South Korea by emphasising their state identities as democracies, the possibility of cooperation between Japan and South Korea will significantly increase. The goal of the present research has been systematically to examine how the United States can influence Japanese citizens’ perceptions of South Korea at the individual level. If the United States were to intervene in Japan-South Korea relations, one can hypothesise that Japanese citizens would be more willing to cooperate with South Korea in countering the threat from China.
To test the hypothesis above, this study conducted an online survey experiment targeting Japanese citizens. The result from the survey experiment has lent support to the hypothesis. Respondents in Japan who are exposed to the stimulus describing active US intervention in the Japan-South Korea relationship tend to be more open to the idea of cooperating with South Korea. One can speculate that a US attempt to reduce tension between Japan and South Korea would be successful in enhancing Japanese citizens’ willingness to work with South Korea. This result suggests that the United States can bring these two states together by invoking the impression that both Japan and South Korea are democratic states.
The findings from the statistical analysis provide critical implications in understanding international relations in East Asia. The analysis has clearly verified that the United States is a crucial actor in the region that can reduce tension between Japan and South Korea. As China gains further strength in the economic, political, and military spheres, it becomes essential for the United States to coordinate with its allies in East Asia so that they can jointly address the threat from China. The present research has demonstrated that invoking images of state identity as democracies is highly effective in this pursuit. The Biden administration has already been engaged in this approach trying to boost the solidarity among US allies in East Asia. In countering China’s rise, Biden has repeatedly underscored the importance of addressing the issues of democracy and human rights in the region (Crowley, 2021; Mason, 2021; Rogers and Sanger, 2021).
There is no question that the trilateral relations among the United States, Japan, and South Korea will be a critical factor in East Asia as China gains further strength in the region. Recognising the utmost importance of trilateral relations, it is essential to further explore the dynamics surrounding these states. This study has examined how the United States can enhance Japanese citizens’ willingness to cooperate with South Korea by emphasising state identity as democratic states. Although this approach is certainly effective, the United States has more options in influencing the relationship between Japan and South Korea. However, very few studies have systematically addressed how the United States can take initiative in managing the trilateral relations in East Asia. Given the dramatic changes that are taking place in the region, it is imperative that scholars address this matter immediately.
1. Although the history issue has been the main source of conflict between Japan and South Korea, one needs to acknowledge that economic issues and the history issue are closely related. It has been reported that the Japan Business Federation may play an important role in addressing the issue involving forced labour during World War II (Okabe, 2023). I thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this point.
2. The survey experiment was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (IRB#: 120320-1).
3. To construct this scenario, I referred to Lee and Shin (2019). Also, a similar story was published more recently, which shows the continuity of US approach in East Asia (Jakes et al., 2021). After the subjects were exposed to this scenario, there was a manipulation check in the survey to verify that they read the story. Those who did not pass the manipulation check were eliminated from the analysis.
4. Respondents were asked to answer this question by choosing one of the following choices: “Strongly agree,” “Somewhat agree,” “Somewhat disagree,” “Strongly disagree,” or “Don’t know/ refuse to answer.” The choice of “Don’t know/ refuse to answer” was coded as a missing value. The rule regarding missing values applies to all of the variables in this study. The World Values Survey 2010-2014 used a similar question (V211).
5. The Pew Research Center (2019) also posed separate questions examining how respondents in different countries perceive the Chinese economy and military (Q41 and Q42). Similar to these questions, I posed the following questions: “China is posing a serious economic threat against Japan.” And “China is posing a serious military threat against Japan.” Regarding the possibility of conflict over the Senakaku Islands, Pew Research Center (2016) tapped into how respondents felt about the emerging conflict over the territorial dispute (Q100). Similar to this question, I used the following question: “I feel that the possibility of military clash with China over the territorial dispute (Senkaku Islands) is increasing.” For these statements, respondents were to choose one of the following: Strongly agree,” “Somewhat agree,” “Somewhat disagree,” “Strongly disagree,” or “Don’t know/ refuse to answer.”
6. I recoded these variables so that higher values show higher levels of threat perceptions. I recoded so that a value of 1 indicates male respondents and 0 represents female ones.
7. Higher values in this variable represent older respondents.
8. Higher values in this variable show higher educational attainment among respondents.
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Article copyright Satoshi Machida.