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Americans think Japanese people are amazing. The feeling is not mutual.

President Obama with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
President Obama with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

A new Pew poll on US-Japanese relations, released in early April, finds that Americans and Japanese see one another pretty differently: Americans tend to have much more positive views of Japanese than vice versa.

Pew asked samples of American and Japanese people whether they associated the other population with five traits: being hardworking, inventive, intolerant, aggressive, and/or selfish. The results show that Americans think Japanese people are positively lovely  — but the feelings aren't quite mutual:

pew chart japanese americans

(Pew Global)

According to this, majorities of Americans see the Japanese as hardworking and inventive. The Japanese see Americans as aggressive and not especially honest. Awkward!

So what's going on? It can help to look at other polls on Japanese attitudes toward Americans. In 2005, at the height of the globally controversial Iraq War, the firm Global Market Insite asked Japanese people their feelings about both Americans and American foreign policy. While 72.9 percent reported "negative feelings" toward US foreign policy, 78.4 percent said they had positive feelings about "the American people."

Meanwhile, in almost every year of Pew data between 1999 and 2015, large majorities of Japanese people viewed the United States favorably.

"There is very little 'hatred' of the United States in Japan," political scientist Paul Midford writes in his book on Japanese public opinion and foreign policy. This is despite controversies in Japan over the US military base at Okinawa, which is unpopular. So what you're seeing in these results is not as straightforward as simple anti-Americanism.

What's especially interesting is where Japanese attitudes line up with and diverge from the most common global stereotypes about Americans. Views of Americans as aggressive, selfish, and inventive are certainly common outside of Japan as well. And it's nice to see so few Japanese identified Americans as "intolerant." But the fact that only a quarter of Japanese identified Americans as "hardworking" seems more surprising — perhaps a legacy of clashing corporate cultures between American and Japanese businesses?

Whatever the results suggest, such cultural attitudes can be fluid, so it will be interesting to see the degree to which they do or don't change over time, if Pew continues to run this poll.

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