A Tree Grows in Yasukuni

By Dina Smeltz

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Japan has received a lot of attention in the past year, and not just from visitors.  The shrine is controversial because it commemorates Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal.  Japanese officials’ visits to the memorial stir up emotions in China and South Korea, who view the Yasukuni shrine as a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression and feel that the Japanese have shown insufficient remorse for wartime atrocities.  In fact, Chinese officials have likened Japanese politicians’ visits to the shrine to the idea of German politicians laying flowers on Hitler’s bunker.

Yesterday – just a day before President Obama’s arrival in Japan – about 150 Japanese lawmakers visited the shrine as part of Yasukuni’s spring festivals. Prime Minister Abe decided not to visit the shrine, opting instead to send an offering of the “masakaki,” a ceremonial tree used in Shinto rituals. 

This is a good move on the part of Abe.  His last visit to the Yasukuni shrine in late December 2013 – the first such visit by a Japanese Prime Minister in seven years –  heightened tensions with China and South Korea and even drew criticism from the United States.  Many people in Japan were also critical of the Prime Minister’s December visit to the Yasukuni shrine, according to Asahi Shimbun polls conducted after Abe’s visit.  Many Japanese also expressed concerned about Abe’s policies toward China and South Korea.

According to a January 25-26 Asahi Shimbun telephone survey (questions translated by The Mansfield Foundation), slightly more among the Japanese public said that Prime Minister Abe was “wrong” (46%) than “right” (41%) to visit the shrine, and a majority thought the visit had a negative influence on Japan’s foreign policy (56% vs. 36% not a negative influence).   By a 5 to 4 margin, more Japanese said that it is important to take “seriously” the strong criticisms of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni from China, South Korea, the United States and Russia (51% to 40%).

These results are a bit different from those reported in an August 2013 survey conducted in Japan by Genron NPO/Public Opinion Research Institute Corporation.  That survey, conducted before Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, found that nearly half thought there was “no problem” if a Japanese Prime Minister wanted to visit the shrine (46%) and an additional 28 percent thought it was ok “as long as the visit was made as a private citizen.”  Only one in ten (10%) thought it was not ok, whether as an official visit or as a private citizen.

Looking to the visit’s broader impact, a February 15-18, 2014 Asahi Shimbun poll showed that a majority of the Japanese public were concerned [“thought that it matters”] a lot (28%) or to some degree (50%) if Japan’s relations with China and Korea deteriorate.  Asked about Abe’s policies toward Japan and South Korea, about half said they opposed (48%) Abe’s approach, compared to a third who favored (33%).   And at least in February, half of the Japanese public thought that Abe should “rush to hold a summit conference with China and Korea” (52%) versus a third who thought the Prime Minister should not (34%).

Hold that thought.  One of President Obama’s purposes for his stops in Asia is to see if he can persuade Japan and South Korea to set aside their differences and cooperate, much as he tried to do in March when he orchestrated a  trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Abe and South Korean President Park on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit at The Hague.

At the very least, more around the world are becoming aware of the sensitivities regarding the Yasukuni shrine.  Just today, Justin Bieber apologized to his fans in China after he posted a photo of his visit to Yasukuni to >15 million beliebers on Instagram this week. According to TIME magazine, he responded today (via Instagram): “While in Japan I asked my driver to pull over for which I saw a beautiful shrine. I was misled to think the Shrines were only a place of prayer. To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry. I love you China and I love you Japan.”

Less is More: American Views on Ukraine

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

In today’s post, we would like to highlight two surveys that were conducted in late March that have not been amplified as much as Pew, Gallup, and other polls about American attitudes on the situation in Ukraine. One survey was conducted by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute between March 26-31, and the other was conducted by the Reason Foundation and the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation (the Reason-Rupe poll; fieldwork by Princeton Survey Research Associates International) between March 26-30. While the Reason Foundation’s mission statement includes “advancing a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles,” their survey questions are objective and do not lean libertarian, and PSRAI is an excellent polling firm.

Approval Ratings

Robert Kagan’s recent editorial “President Obama’s Foreign Policy Paradox” in the Washington Post (explaining why Americans dislike the foreign policy they desire) left us wondering what Americans think of the President’s management of the situation in Ukraine. Specifically, how do American approval ratings of Obama’s policy on Ukraine mesh with actions they would actually applaud him for doing (or not doing) in this particular case.

The Quinnipiac poll found that more disapprove (47%) than approve (41%) of the way the president has handled “the situation involving Russia and Ukraine.” The Reason-Rupe survey similarly found just slightly more disapproving (40%) than approving (37%) of the “way Barack Obama is handling the situation in Ukraine.” There are wide partisan differences on this question, as you might expect. In both cases, solid majorities of Democrats approve of the President’s management of the Ukraine crisis, while solid majorities of Republicans disapprove (a plurality of Independents also disapprove).


According to Reason-Rupe data, there is a great deal of overlap between the portion of Americans who approve of Obama’s job performance as president (overall, 43% approve and 51% disapprove) and assessments of his handling of the Ukraine situation. Seven in ten of those who approve of his performance as president also approve of his policy on Ukraine; seven in ten of those who disapprove of his performance as president also disapprove of his policy on Ukraine. Only one in ten Americans differs from this pattern.

Too Tough, Too Weak, or Just Right?

The problem with approval-disapproval type questions is that it is difficult to discern from toplines alone whether people are critical because they feel the US should be doing more, less or something different. Fortunately, the Quinnipiac survey asked a separate question and found that Americans think it is more important to avoid getting “too involved” in the situation (54%) than it is “to take a firm stand against Russian actions” (39%). Similarly, another Quinnipiac question found that a plurality say that Barack Obama’s dealing with the situation has been about right (45%), versus not tough enough (36%) or too tough (6%). In a standoff between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama, Americans are equally divided on who is the stronger leader (42% for both).

Let’s look more closely at support for the possible array of options available (or at least, those available in polling questions).


The Quinnipiac poll found that 69 percent of Americans support the US and its European allies imposing economic sanctions against Russia, while slightly smaller majorities supported sanctions in this case in March 5-9 CNN/ORC (59%) and in March 7-9 ABC News/Washington Post (57%) surveys. But ABC/WP reported that only 40 percent supported sanctions if they were imposed by the US alone. The CNN/ORC poll also found a majority opposed to canceling the summit meeting between “Russia and the US and its Western allies” (58% oppose, 40% favor).

Beyond Sanctions

Few Americans support more forceful action. One in three (31%) says they would prefer the US to continue imposing economic sanctions given Russia’s “invasion of Ukraine,” though 58 percent say they would prefer to stay out of the situation between Russia and Ukraine altogether (8% prefer to send US military troops).

Other polls show similar results: The CNN/ORC survey showed large majorities opposed to sending US ground troops (88%), US airstrikes but no ground troops (82%), or the US sending weapons and other military supplies to the Ukrainian government (76%). None of these questions asked about a multilateral military action, however, which is a far more likely option than unilateral US military action.

This doesn’t mean that Americans don’t care about the situation in Ukraine. Several surveys show that majorities of Americans are following the situation at least somewhat closely and a majority in the Quinnipiac survey express concern that the current situation “could develop into a larger regional conflict that could lead to the US military getting involved” (80%, including 39% very concerned). But while a plurality consider Ukraine a friendly country (47%), only 17 percent consider Ukraine to be an “ally” according to a March 22-23 Gallup poll.

With an eye to the future, the Reason-Rupe poll asked respondents about possible actions if Russia invades additional parts of Ukraine. In this case, 61 percent would favor imposing stricter economic sanctions, but no more than a third would favor sending US military aid and weapons to the Ukrainian government (33%) or sending US troops (20%).

Unpacking Disapproval

Recapping the range of results, then, roughly 40 percent of Americans seem to disapprove of Obama’s handling of the Ukrainian situation. Yet, no more than about a third of Americans would support sending troops or military equipment, and multilateral sanctions are the only tool that Americans seem to endorse at this point. Furthermore, only 17 percent of Americans characterize Ukraine as an ally.

On the surface, it seems that some of the criticism about US policy on Ukraine must be based either on a desire to stay out of the situation altogether and/or on partisan disdain for the President overall. Thankfully, the Reason-Rupe poll also released a number of crosstabulations, letting us look a bit deeper into the data.


As the figure above illustrates, whether or not Americans approve of the President’s handling of the Ukraine situation, they are more inclined to want to stay out of the conflict altogether; this is especially true of those who disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the situation (47% among those who approve, 61% among those who disapprove). Those who approve of his policy are more likely than those who disapprove to support continuing sanctions (42% among those who approve, 26% of those who disapprove). Only about one in ten of those who approve and disapprove supports sending US military troops and assets.

Looking at the options by partisan divides, opinions are even more similar, with nearly six in ten among Republicans, Democrats and Independents opting to stay out of the conflict (see figure below). So in this case, why don’t American’s like the President’s foreign policy on Ukraine? Very few seem to disapprove because they want the President to do more. Rather, it seems that they either want him to do even less–or they just might not like the President.