January 9, 2019 | By Karl Friedhoff

History Continues Unabated between Japan and South Korea

The recent spat between Japan and South Korea over a naval encounter has once again spotlighted poor relations between two important US allies. While not new, this friction is usually driven by historical issues stemming from Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Surveys conducted in mid-2018 by the Genron NPO in Japan and the East Asia Institute in South Korea suggest there will be no détente in the offing.

But first, there is some good news in the survey results. People in both countries agree on the primary issues that need to be resolved in order to improve the relationship. Resolving the Dokdo/Takeshima issue, resolving the history education issue, and resolving the comfort women issue are the top three issues for both publics though they differ in rank order. There is also broad agreement in South Korea (82%) and Japan (56%) that the bilateral relationship is important.

Of course, the bad news is that each country’s solution to these issues is unacceptable to the other. Nearly half in Japan (48%) and a majority in Korea (57%) think relations between the two countries will stay the same in the future. This is despite the fact that a plurality in Japan (35%) and 50 percent in South Korea say that negative public sentiment is problematic and needs to be improved.

That negative public sentiment extends to views of the other country more broadly. Nearly half (46%) of Japanese hold unfavorable views of South Korea and  51 percent of South Koreans hold unfavorable views of Japan. In both cases, history is cited as the primary reason for these negative views. In Japan, 69 percent say they hold negative views of South Kora due to continued criticism of historical issues. In South Korea, 70 percent say unfavorable views are driven by Japan’s lack of remorse for its past.

This helps to explain the negative loop in which the countries are continually locked. They may agree on the problems to be resolved, but have little trust that the other country is ready to be an honest partner in resolving those problems. Until that perception changes, relations will remain beholden to historical issues with little prospect for real progress.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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