The state of Japan-South Korea relations

In a recent joint Japanese-South Korean survey, more than 60% of respondents from both countries said they believe bilateral relations have deteriorated. Only 6.1% of Japanese and 3.7% of South Korean respondents said they think ties between the two countries are "good."

Japanese respondents who perceive bilateral relations as "bad" jumped to 63.5%, a 23 point increase from 2018, and the highest since the survey began in 2013. 66.1% of South Koreans answered the same, an 11 point increase from 2018.

A major cause for the souring of relations between the two countries is the position of the South Korean Supreme Court on wartime labor. Since last October, it has issued two rulings ordering Japanese firms to compensate those who say they were forced to work for the companies during World War Two. The Japanese government maintains that the issue of compensation was settled with the signing of a bilateral agreement in 1965.

Another contributing factor is the radar lock-on dispute. Tokyo says a South Korean naval vessel directed a fire-control radar at a Japanese patrol plane over the Sea of Japan last December, an allegation Seoul denies.

More than 70% of South Korean respondents said they believe the two countries "should make efforts to improve their relationship". 40% of Japanese respondents said the same.

But nearly 30% of Japanese respondents had negative feelings on the current state of relations, ranging from "[Japan] should ignore the adversarial country for now" to "nothing can be done now or in the future."

Impression of the other country

While opinions on the state of government relations were mostly negative, responses varied when it came to the overall impression of the other country.

Only 20% of Japanese respondents said they have a "good" impression of South Korea, the lowest number since the survey began. However, the impression South Korean respondents said they have of Japan went the other way. The percentage of respondents who said they have a "bad impression" of Japan dropped to less than 50% for the first time.

Younger respondents from both countries tended to have more positive impressions. The percentage of South Koreans under 20 who said they have a "good impression" was larger than of those holding a "bad impression."

Asked what they viewed positively about South Korea, more than 50% of Japanese respondents under 20 said "they are interested in Korean culture, such as music and drama." The second most cited reason was "South Koreans are honest, diligent, and hard-working."

Meanwhile, the majority of under 20 South Koreans said they believe "Japan is a developed country and has a high standard of living" and that "Japanese people are kind and sincere."

"Our latest survey shows that Japanese-South Korean relations have drastically deteriorated due to soured bilateral relations at the government level," says Yasushi Kudo, president of Genron NPO, one of the two organizations that carried out the survey. "On the other hand, the general impressions of the other country by individuals is not as bad. In particular, there is significant improvement among the youth. The governments of Japan and South Korea should recognize this and implement policies reflecting this."

"There are two layers in regard to Japan-South Korea relations, government and citizen," says Yul Sohn, president of the East Asia Institute, the other organization that manages the survey. "According to the survey, the number of South Koreans who believe ties should be improved has increased substantially. The governments of both countries should try to fight the stereotype that Koreans have anti-Japanese sentiment."

The survey is conducted annually by Genron NPO, a Japanese non-profit, and the East Asia Institute (EAI), an independent think tank based in Seoul. 1,000 Japanese people and 1,008 South Korean people responded from May to June 2019.