Survey Report

After almost a month of Japan making do without nuclear energy, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda may have finally persuaded local communities that it is safe to restart two of the 50 reactors that have been idled in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Nonetheless, 70% of Japanese say their country should reduce its reliance on nuclear energy, in a poll conducted as the country’s last nuclear power stations went offline. This is a much larger number taking this position than in the weeks following last year’s nuclear meltdown at the quake and tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Increased skepticism about nuclear power is coupled with widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s performance: eight-in-ten say the government has done a poor job dealing with the Fukushima crisis and six-in-ten disapprove of how Tokyo has handled the overall recovery from the earthquake and tsunami.

The intensity of the public’s frustration stands in sharp contrast with widespread hope last spring that Japan might succeed in turning tragedy into triumph. A year ago, 58% of Japanese believed the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami would actually make their country stronger. Today, only 39% share this view, while 47% say the twin disaster has actually weakened their nation.

Overall, the Japanese public is decidedly pessimistic about how things are going in their country. Fully 78% express dissatisfaction with the country’s direction, while an overwhelming 93% describe the current state of the economy as bad. Compared with last year, fewer expect the economic situation to worsen, but the prevailing view is that the economy will stagnate, rather than improve in the months ahead.

These are the principal findings from a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, conducted by telephone with 700 adults in Japan between March 20 and April 12, 2012. The poll also finds that only 12% of Japanese believe the national government is having a positive influence on the way things are going in the country – a plunge from 50% five years ago. Current prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, fares slightly better: 30% say he is having a positive impact on the country’s situation.

By contrast, 89% characterize the influence of the country’s Self Defense Force as good – up 22 percentage points since the same question was posed five years ago. Meanwhile, few among the Japanese public have praise for the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. An overwhelming 94% say the company is having a negative impact on the way things are going in Japan, and 88% disapprove of TEPCO’s handling of the situation at the Fukushima facility.

Concerns About Nuclear Power

The Japanese public is far more leery of nuclear power than it was in the immediate aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s northeast coast and critically damaged the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

A year ago, Japanese were divided over whether the use of nuclear power in Japan should be reduced (44%) or maintained at its current level (46%). Only 8% said reliance on nuclear power should be increased. Since then, the number who believe Japan should reduce its dependence on nuclear energy has surged to 70%, while support for maintaining nuclear power use at current levels has fallen to fewer than half that number (25%). Just 4% of Japanese say the country should expand the use of nuclear power.

Compared with last spring, the public’s fears about radiation exposure from the Fukushima disaster have eased somewhat. Roughly half (52%) now say they are worried that they or someone in their family may have been exposed to radiation, while 47% are unconcerned. In spring 2011, 59% were worried about radiation risks to their families, compared with 40% who were not.

Radiation risks are a much more prominent issue for people who live near the quake zone and the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor: 62% of residents in these areas express concerns about radiation, compared with 45% of Japanese in other regions of the country.

Worries about radiation exposure also tend to be more pronounced among Japanese with lower incomes (67%); women (61%, compared with 42% of men); older people (62% of those age 60 or over); and those with no more than a high school education (58%, compared to 44% with a college degree).

Although general fears about radiation exposure have subsided somewhat, worries persist about the safety of foods produced near the Fukushima nuclear plant. Fully 76% of Japanese believe produce from the Fukushima area is not safe, while just 19% disagree. Worries about contaminated food are more prevalent among Japanese with at least some university education (84%) than those with a high school education or less (71%).

Frustration With Recovery Efforts

In the spring of 2011, most Japanese seemed confident that despite the destructive force of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami their country would rally as a nation. Indeed, a majority (58%) predicted the twin disaster would actually make their country stronger. A year later, that sense of resilience has faded. Just 39% now believe Japan has been strengthened by the earthquake and tsunami, compared with 47% who say the disasters have weakened the country and 12% who believe the country has been unaffected.

The public is clearly dissatisfied with how the government has responded to the March 2011 crisis. Six-in-ten say they disapprove of how Tokyo has handled the overall recovery from the earthquake and tsunami, while only 37% voice approval.

Japanese citizens are especially frustrated with the government’s handling of the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant: 80% disapprove of Tokyo’s response, while just 17% approve. Dissatisfaction with the government’s approach has grown from last spring, when reports first surfaced concerning radiation leaks at Fukushima. Then, a quarter approved of the government’s actions and 69% disapproved.

An overwhelming majority of Japanese (88%) also disapprove of how TEPCO has handled the crisis. Roughly one-in-ten (9%) think TEPCO has handled the situation well. Even among the minority of Japanese who believe the use of nuclear power should not be reduced, 86% disapprove of TEPCO’s response to the Fukushima crisis.

Pervasive Pessimism

Relatively few Japanese are upbeat about their country’s direction. Just one-in-five are satisfied with the way things are going in Japan, while nearly eight-in-ten (78%) are dissatisfied. The degree of dissatisfaction is up slightly from last year (72%), and is notably higher in areas near the quake zone (86%) than in the rest of the country (72%).

Assessments of the country’s direction are not helped by continuing disappointment in Japan’s national economy. Only a handful of Japanese (7%) describe the current economic situation as good, roughly on par with attitudes since 2008. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority (93%) say the economy is in bad shape.

Last spring, when the country was reeling from the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami, 52% of Japanese predicted tougher economic times ahead. Today, fewer are as downbeat (33% say the economic situation will worsen over the coming year), but optimists are still a minority (16%). The prevailing view (49%) is that the economy won’t improve over the next 12 months.

Institutions and Leaders Poorly Rated

The Japanese public is generally negative toward key institutions and leaders within the country, likely reflecting disappointment with quake and tsunami recovery efforts and possibly also frustration with the flow of accurate information about the situation at the Fukushima power plant. Just 12% of Japanese say the national government is having a good influence on the way things are going in the country; 86% say it is having a bad influence. This is a significant shift from 2007, when the public was fairly divided on the issue (50% good influence vs. 44% bad influence).

Notably, supporters of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) are as lackluster in their praise of the government as backers of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), with 17% each saying good influence. Among both groups roughly eight-in-ten (83% and 82%, respectively) say the government is having a bad influence, although LDP supporters are more likely to say the government is having a very bad influence (29% vs. 15%). Among Japanese who support other parties, or no party at all, just 8% say the government is having a good influence on the way things are going in the country, compared with 91% who describe the government’s impact as bad (40% very, 51% somewhat).

TEPCO is also judged harshly by the public: only 4% say the company is having a good influence on the way things are going in the country, while 94% say it is having a negative impact.

On balance, fewer see the media – television, radio, newspapers and magazines –exerting a positive (34%) as opposed to negative influence (63%) on Japanese society. This assessment is nearly identical to views in 2007 (33% good vs. 64% bad), but much more negative than a decade ago when the public was evenly split on the issue (48% good vs. 48% bad).

The one institution that shines in the public’s eyes is the nation’s Self Defense Force. Almost nine-in-ten Japanese (89%) say the SDF is having a positive influence on the way things are going in the country; only about one-in-ten (9%) disagree. In 2007 and 2002, smaller majorities saw the SDF having a good influence (67% and 69%, respectively). The higher regard now for the SDF may be lingering positive sentiment about its involvement in earthquake and tsunami relief efforts last spring. At the time, 95% said the SDF had done a good job responding to the twin disaster.

The survey also asked about Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who took office in September 2011. Three-in-ten Japanese say the current head of government is having a positive influence on the way things are going in Japan, while two-thirds believe he is having a negative impact. Views of Noda generally divide along party lines: 48% among supporters of Noda’s DPJ say he is having a good influence, compared with just 28% of LDP backers and 23% of those who either identify with other parties or no party.