TOKYO – This year's tsunami and nuclear disasters have severely shaken the Japanese public's confidence in their government, and many are pessimistic about the country's future, an Associated Press-GfK poll has found.
The results released Thursday also show that Japanese generally distrust their leaders and that nearly 60 percent believe the country is heading in the wrong direction — a sobering welcome for Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, elected this week.
Five months after the triple catastrophes — the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident — nearly three-quarters of the people lack confidence in the government's ability to handle another major disaster. Eighty percent felt deeply that leaders were not telling them the truth about the crises, and a slight majority want to reduce the number of nuclear reactors in the nation.
Overall, Japanese are gloomy about the state of their country, currently and in the future.
Nearly two-thirds believe Japan is a weaker international power than it was 10 years ago, and a startling 84 percent of respondents believe the economy, overtaken by China's to slide to third globally, is in poor shape. Some 44 percent believe children born today will be worse off when they grow up than people are now.
That pessimism reflects the complex mix of problems and attitudes confronting Noda as he replaces Naoto Kan, whose 15-month tenure ended amid widespread criticism of his administration's handling of the disasters.
Some 100,000 residents from around the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant remain dislocated with no clear idea when they will be able to return to their homes. Residents in the scores of towns and villages along the tsunami-wracked northeastern coast are still cleaning up and fault the central government for being preoccupied with the nuclear crisis.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the plant, received a harsh assessment, with 8 in 10 people disapproving of its response to the disaster, while Kan and the nuclear safety agency got thumbs down from three-quarters of respondents.
However, the Japanese military, which mobilized quickly in relief work after the tsunami, got positive reviews from 9 out of 10 people, the AP-GfK poll found.
Since the March 11 disasters, some 82 percent doubted the government's ability to help them in the event of such an emergency — cited as a deep feeling by 82 percent. Three quarters reported feeling generally less safe than before March 11, and two-thirds were angry that relief was slow in reaching victims.
Americans' emotions following Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans were less intense and focused more on anger (67 percent reporting this as a deep feeling) than fears for their personal safety, cited by 30 percent, or doubts about the government's ability to help them in a disaster (44 percent).
The widespread disappointment reflected in the poll is "sad, but it shows that people are looking at things honestly" and that they believe the response to the disasters "has been unsatisfactory," said Tetsuro Kato, a political science professor at Waseda University.
"The disasters could have been used to chart a new direction" for Japan and its leaders, "but that didn't happen," Kato said. "It was a missed opportunity."
"Some probably want to scream," Kato said.
The Fukushima accident has triggered debate in Japan about the future role of nuclear power in this earthquake-prone nation, which got 30 percent of its electricity from atomic power plants before the accident. The government has since scrapped its plan to boost that level to 50 percent by 2030.
The poll found that few in Japan have confidence in the nation's nuclear power plants — only 5 percent were either extremely or very confident, while 60 percent had little or no confidence.
A slight majority, 55 percent, want to reduce the number of atomic power plants, while 35 percent would like to leave the number about the same. Four percent want an increase while 3 percent want to eliminate them entirely.
Overall, 59 percent felt the country was headed in the wrong direction, while 63 percent believe Japan's international power is weaker than 10 years ago.
"From abroad, Japan appears to be turning inward," said Kato, who was in the U.S. last week. He also bemoaned the lack of robust debate about the nuclear crisis in the brief campaign among candidates who fought to replace Kan — a race Noda won.
Still, on a personal level a majority of Japanese, or 56 percent, say they are happy with the way things are going in their lives. Just 11 percent consider themselves mostly unhappy, while a third are neither happy or unhappy.
More women say they are happy than men (65 percent versus 47 percent). Married people also say they are happier than singles (60 percent versus 47 percent).
The AP-GfK telephone poll conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications surveyed 1,000 adults across Japan between July 29 and Aug. 10, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
Recovery from the quake and tsunami is clearly viewed as the top priority for the nation, cited as the most important goal Japan over the next 10 years by nearly all surveyed. Nine in 10 said recovering from events of March 11 was the most serious problem facing the country.
The aging population was viewed as the second most serious problem, cited by 78 percent as either very or extremely serious.
Third was the lack of a stable government, cited by nearly three-quarters — highlighted by Noda's recent appointment as the sixth prime minister in five years.
But respondents were divided over whether they favored a fixed four-year term for the prime minister, similar to the U.S. president. Thirty percent favored such a change, while 31 percent opposed it, and 38 percent took neither stance.
No branch of the government has the trust of a majority to do the right thing most of the time. Sixty-five percent trust the parliament to do so less than half the time, and 59 percent hold that view of the Cabinet.
Also, a whopping 85 percent say elected officials are more interested in serving special interests than the people they represent.
On the economic front, 70 percent said conditions are worse today than five years ago, and about a third predicted that they would be worse five years from now — although 42 percent believed they would be about the same.
As in the U.S., the Japanese rate their own personal finances more highly than the nation's economy.
Still, just 19 percent rate their finances as excellent or in good shape, 53 percent say they are fair and 28 percent say they are poor. About a third say their family's financial health has declined in the last five years, 13 percent think it's gotten better and 52 percent say it's held steady.
On the Web: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com