From Boycotts to Selfies: Asia’s Myriad Perceptions of Japan


As an instructor on Indo-Pacific security, the most common question I receive from students, ranging from undergraduates to senior military officers, is: Why do some countries in Asia still deeply resent Japan, while others display a warm fondness towards Tokyo?

Layers of nationalism, politics, and historical memory make sweeping generalizations about “Asian” perceptions of Japan meaningless. In South Korea, vigorous youth-led campaigns to boycott Japanese goods underscore this enduring legacy of animosity and mistrust. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen faced mixed reactions for tweeting in Japanese during her 2020 reelection campaign, but is credited with gaining support from the island’s “pro-Japan” progressives by doing so. Meanwhile, in Thailand and the Philippines, I have observed young students casually snapping selfies with the Japanese “rising sun” flag while enjoying a cone of matcha ice cream or eating sushi.



This dynamic is not just of interest to scholars of Asian foreign relations — perceptions towards Japan have a direct impact on regional security. With the United States championing Japan’s growing security capacity as part of its larger Indo-Pacific strategy, Washington should clearly understand the diversity of regional views towards Japan. Tokyo’s bolstered security posture has been met with profound skepticism in Seoul, complicating security cooperation in critical areas like the East and South China Sea. This strain in relations stands in contrast with Taiwan and Southeast Asia, which both welcome Japan’s new security presence with fewer reservations. Indeed, even countries in Southeast Asia that favor close economic and political ties with China, like Cambodia, are not communicating much skepticism towards an increased Japanese security presence in their region. Exploring these divergent and somewhat paradoxical views of Japan’s security policies today — as well as the history behind them — can help Washington to craft more nuanced and effective security policies for the Indo-Pacific.

Historical Memory

To understand the nuanced views of Japan in Asia, it is essential to delve into some of the region’s complex disagreements over “historical memory.” Indeed, in the United States, most perceptions of Japan’s history in Asia are shaped by Japanese actions in Northeast Asia, mainly the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria, and China. From its annexation of the island of Taiwan (then Formosa) in 1895 to the end of the war in Asia in 1945, the Empire of Japan left a legacy of imperialist domination, cruelty, and blood-soaked atrocities. Japan’s brutal practices included forced labor, the establishment of the “comfort women” system of sexual slavery, the suppression of local languages and cultures, and the gruesome medical experiments conducted by Unit 731 on Korean and Chinese subjects. These events still play an emotional and active role in Korean and Chinese politics today, especially due to some perceptions that Japanese political, educational, and social institutions seek to deny or understate these events.

An often-ignored aspect of this history is the ignoble role of the West. Powers like the United States and the United Kingdom mostly tolerated Japan’s expansion into Korea, only beginning a belated campaign of political and economic pressure against Japan following its invasion of the Republic of China. Western acquiescence, epitomized by the 1905 Taft-Katsura Memorandum, which essentially sanctioned Japan’s control over Korea in exchange for non-interference with American rule in the Philippines, still fuels resentment in South Korea. Further still, America’s post-war policies towards the region, which included promoting a rehabilitation of Japan as a newly democratic and free society, met particular skepticism in South Korea.

Taiwan’s history with Japan, starting with its annexation following the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, makes it the former territory with the longest memory of occupation. Japan subjugated the peoples of Taiwan in a similar, albeit perhaps less brutal, manner to that seen in Korea and China. But circumstances changed following Japan’s defeat in 1945. After a brief period of relative peace and stability, Taiwan found itself hosting the defeated Nationalist forces of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and under the authoritarian direct rule of the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-Shek. That rule was punctuated by the “white terror,” a period of brutal suppression of perceived communist or disloyal forces on the island. The echoes of this period are still felt in Taiwanese politics today and, in most cases, represent a more powerful and emotional scar of historical memory than those left by Japan.

In Southeast Asia, the experience of Japanese occupation during the 1940s was often just as brutal as in Korea and China, but briefer. Imperial Japan governed territories like the Philippines and Singapore through a lens of harsh ethnic grievance, with any opposition to Japanese rule perceived as a racial betrayal of Tokyo’s “Pan-Asian” vision. However, Japan’s role in displacing Western colonial powers led to mixed reactions in the wider region, with some leaders in countries like Thailand and Indonesia viewing Japan as a perhaps unwelcome but convenient liberator from European hegemony. Post-war, as Japan’s influence in the region evolved from military occupation to economic engagement, views of Japan actually worsened due to perceptions of commercial neocolonialism. Indeed, some of the largest anti-Japanese protests in Asia’s history, such as the 1974 “Malari” anti-Japanese riots in Indonesia, were more motivated by frustrations over post-war Japan’s economic policies rather than any wartime conduct. Yet, following a period of economic reform and the foreign policy shifts of the 1977, specifically the “Fukuda Doctrine” of outreach to Southeast Asia, views of Japan improved dramatically in the region.

Japan’s Expanding Regional Security Role

While these perceptions have long impacted Asia’s international relations, their relevance to regional security is particularly distinct today. Japan, once devoted to a foreign policy that eschewed hard security as a tool of national power, has steadily reasserted its security presence in Asia in recent years. Motivated by an increasingly unstable and insecure strategic environment, Tokyo is once again a central player in regional security developments.

Indeed, security leaders in Tokyo speak of Japan as a “front line” state, surrounded by aggressive Chinese territorial claims on its lands, a newly revanchist Russia to its north, and frequent provocative North Korean missile tests. As an island country, dependent on imports for most of its raw materials and energy needs, Japanese national security documents are today publicly stating what had long been taken for granted in private: The country needs to maintain secure access to sea lanes to safeguard its supplies of critical resources. This has sparked a series of ambitious Japanese security initiatives, largely through an unprecedented bolstering of the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s combat capabilities and an increased network of capacity building and training support missions in Southeast Asia.

Many countries in the region share Japan’s concern about China’s rise and share Japan’s strategic alignment with the United States. Yet their responses to Tokyo’s new security policies nonetheless vary based on their historical memory and unique domestic politics. As such, they deserve consideration on a more specific basis.

South Korea: Unsolved Historical Questions and Domestic Political Incentives

In the case of South Korea, skepticism towards Japan remains first and foremost about historical memory and the perception that Japan has not properly atoned for its past actions. Yet the existence of such grievances also creates a domestic political incentive for “Japan-bashing” in South Korea. This phenomenon has been well documented by scholars such as Gi-Wook Shin and Daniel Sneider, who argue that the manipulation of historical narratives is often used as a tool by political elites to consolidate domestic support, define national identity, and rally populist public opinion. These tactics are typically associated with the Korean political left, who prioritize rapprochement with North Korea over security coalition building with neighbors aimed at deterring Pyongyang.

Thus, under the current conservative President Yoon Suk-Yeol, there are mostly positive headlines about the Japanese-South Korean relationship, motivated by Seoul’s outreach to Tokyo over shared security priorities. These headlines have been accompanied by a series of positive gains now locked in by political agreements. But it is worth remembering that Seoul-Tokyo ties typically fluctuate between highs and lows, and the lack of a lasting agreement on perennial memory issues like comfort women and forced labor imply that, sooner or later, relations will return to a low point.

Against this backdrop, the historical role of the West, which today largely backs an increased Japanese security presence in the Indo-Pacific, could also prove multi-faceted. Support in European and North American capitals for expanding Japanese role as a security provider in Asia may soothe some anxieties in Seoul. However, it may also bring up echoes of the West’s historical ambivalence toward Korea’s subjugation by others.

Taiwan: Changing Views with a Changing Identity

Yet Taiwan, which also suffered decades of occupation, lacks South Korea’s domestic political incentives for criticizing Japan. As Taiwanese politics increasingly represents an independent (i.e., non-Chinese) political identity, views of Japan are decoupling from those on the mainland and in South Korea. This process of identity formation has led to a reevaluation of historical narratives, including those concerning the Japanese occupation. Indeed, Japan-bashing is perceived in Taiwan as a particularly mainlander perspective, not a native or “Taiwanese” one. Native Taiwanese, referring to those who lived on Taiwan prior to the retreat of Chinese Nationalist forces to the island in 1949, even factored Japanese aspects into their identity, as evidenced by the use of the Japanese language by protestors to determine Chinese versus Taiwanese identity during the anti-Nationalist “228” protests in 1947. As described by Taiwanese anthropologist Huang Chih-Huei, the experience of Nationalist rule led many native Taiwanese to feel that “the earlier colonizers turned out to be the better set,” leading to an embrace of the Japanese aspects of their identity. 

These mixed attitudes towards Japan extends to the current generation. A 2022 survey found that a significant majority of the younger population held favorable views of Japan, and most named Japan as their “favorite” country. Scholars like Huang-Chih Chiang and Yeh-Chung Lu have noted that the younger generation in Taiwan tends to associate Japan with positive aspects like advanced technology, cultural richness, and even democratic values, rather than with the colonial past. This shift is also reflected in the island’s foreign policy toward Japan and bilateral economic ties, which are increasingly influenced by Taiwan’s ongoing efforts to forge a distinct identity separate from China. In this way, the younger generation’s inclination towards a Taiwanese identity, as opposed to a Chinese one, has inadvertently facilitated a more positive reassessment of the historical Japanese influence on the island.

Certainly, pragmatism also underlies Taiwan’s favorable view of Japan, particularly regarding defense. A 2021 poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation revealed that over 70 percent of Taiwanese would welcome Japanese support in the event of a military conflict with China. This statistic highlights a strategic dimension to Taiwan’s positive perception of Japan, acknowledging Japan’s potential role as a critical ally in ensuring the island’s security.

Southeast Asia: Pragmatism and Economic Focus

Unique geopolitical and historical factors in Southeast Asia have led to a more positive attitude towards Japan than in much of Northeast Asia. To be sure, even this claim risks straying into the realm of generalization. However, reliable polling, such as ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s survey of Association of Southeast Asian Nations elites, demonstrates a substantial majority of Southeast Asian leaders viewing Japan favorably, with around two-thirds regularly expressing confidence in Japan’s role in providing regional security and promoting stability. This positive perception is deeply rooted in economic ties and strategic partnerships that have evolved significantly since the mid-20th century.

The Fukuda Doctrine, as mentioned above, marked a symbolic turning point in Japan’s approach towards Southeast Asia and helped to overcome regional perceptions of economic neocolonialism. Motivated by flagging relations with the region and concern over Washington’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China, Japan’s new doctrine emphasized “heart-to-heart” relations, including mutual understanding, trust, and equal economic partnership. This policy paved the rhetorical road to more mutually beneficial economic relations between Japan and the region, by sparking by a dramatic increase in Japanese investment following the 1985 Plaza Accords and Tokyo’s substantial financial support to countries affected by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. As a result, views of Japan’s economic presence evolved to focus less on neocolonial extraction and more on value added, rebuilding trust among Southeast Asia’s elites and citizenry alike. This trust was pivotal in overcoming the deep-seated skepticism that stemmed not just from wartime conduct but, perhaps even more so, from post-war predatory economic practices.

Thus, in the realm of security, Southeast Asia’s stance towards Japan has been pragmatic but largely positive. During my fieldwork in the region, security leaders from Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia have told me there is a prevailing regional belief that the historical context of World War II has lost its relevance in the modern era. Japan’s consistent focus on development assistance, economic partnership, and respect for the sovereignty of Southeast Asian nations has solidified its standing as a trusted and valued partner in the region. Beyond positive poll numbers and personal conversations, this trust is evident in Japan’s growing security relationships across Southeast Asia. These include the recent agreement to negotiate a Reciprocal Access Agreement with the Philippines, signing of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Vietnam, and a potential $3.6 billion sale of stealth frigates to Indonesia. 


When shaping policies in the Indo-Pacific region, Washington should be attuned to the nuances of historical memory. By appreciating the historical context of Japan’s relationships with countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and Southeast Asian nations, external actors can more effectively navigate the region’s complex web of affinities and enmities.

Washington should appreciate that South Korea’s negative views, though critical to understanding regional dynamics, are not representative of the entirety of Asia. South Korea’s historical grievances with Japan are deeply rooted and complex, but they contrast with the generally positive or positive-trending perception of Japan in other areas, such as Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Policies and strategies involving Japan should not be established on a baseline of Seoul’s perspective. Currently, Washington appears to be prioritizing reconciliation between Tokyo and Seoul for this reason, with far less focus on supporting Japanese security initiatives in the rest of the region. This is likely the result of a decades-long relationship of trust between Washington and Seoul and vocal activism by Koreans and Korean-Americans dissatisfied with Japan’s attitude towards reconciliation. These views are real and important, but a one-size-fits-all approach will forgo the opportunity to forge more effective and nuanced regional partnerships.

Indeed, Washington’s understandable desire for Japan and South Korea to cooperate more on regional security may paradoxically benefit from a de-prioritization of that strained bilateral relationship. Promoting the common goods that Japan can provide to the region as a whole may ultimately prove a more effective focus. This approach would give space for Tokyo and Seoul to continue their slow and uneven process of mutual trust-building, while allowing the United States to emphasize more positive examples of Japanese regional leadership.

Finally, Japan’s experience shows that the United States should approach its role in the Indo-Pacific with a sense of humility. American policymakers should recognize that in many Asian countries the United States is seen not just as an external actor but as a participant in historical memory. This perception calls for a diplomatic strategy that is sensitive to the historical experiences and current sentiments of each nation. Humility in this context means acknowledging past negative American actions across the region, such as U.S. conduct during the Vietnam War or involvement in backing authoritarian regimes in the Philippines and Indonesia. Japan’s rebounding popularity in Southeast Asia suggests that respectful and empathetic long-term dialogue can yield results. Such an approach would enhance U.S. credibility and effectiveness in fostering cooperative security arrangements in a critical region.



Ryan Ashley is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force with extensive operational experience in East Asia and Japan and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. He is also a lecturer with the Air Force Special Operations School. He has previously published on East Asian security and international relations with War on the RocksNikkei Asia, and The Diplomat.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.


Image: The White House