Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

The "Rally 'Round the Flag" Effect in Territorial Disputes: Experimental Evidence from Japan-China Relations

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

The "Rally 'Round the Flag" Effect in Territorial Disputes: Experimental Evidence from Japan-China Relations

Article excerpt


This study examines the impact of China's growing territorial ambitions on Japanese public opinion. By experimentally manipulating perceived territorial threats from China, we tested two potential mechanisms of increased support for a conservative incumbent leader in Japan. The first is the "rally 'round the flag" model, in which threats universally boost support for the leader through emotion. The second is the "reactive liberal" model, in which support from conservatives remains constant, but threatened liberals move toward supporting the conservative leader. Two survey experiments provided no support for the emotion-based "rally 'round the flag" model, but they lent support for the reactive liberal model in explaining the impact on Japanese public opinion. However, the second experiment indicated that priming with an image of the prime minister that highlights his role as the supreme commander of the national defense forces completely eliminated the gain in approval rates among liberals.


rally 'round the flag effect, anger, anxiety, perceived threat, reactive liberal hypothesis, Japan, China


Heightened tensions over territorial issues have been a flash point of militarized conflict between Japan and China. Since the purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by the Japanese government in September 2012, a substantial number of Chinese vessels have entered the territorial waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. (1) Academic pundits and the news media have been forecasting an accidental collision over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which could escalate into serious militarized conflict (e.g., BBC 2013, 2014, 2017; The Economist 2013). Along with the concurrent dispute in the South China Sea, the prospect of detente remains slim in the short term.

With rapid growth in its military expenditure and economic power, China has made incremental territorial claims in neighboring seas. The Chinese government has put pressure on Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue and has even attempted to broaden the territorial dispute by suggesting a challenge to Japan's sovereignty over the Okinawa Islands (McCurry 2013). The conservative Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe, often recognized as hawkish in his political stance, has stood firm against such territorial challenges from China. While consolidating his conservative political basis, PM Abe recently reinterpreted Article IX of the Constitution and passed security legislation for further military cooperation with the US, thereby signaling Japan's strong resolve for national security and territorial integrity.

The ongoing bilateral tension brings significant impacts on domestic politics and public opinion. Given China's growing appetite for territorial expansion, do persistent tensions influence the Japanese public's perception of the threat from China and support for the uncompromising political leader? If so, does such territorial threat elicit broad-based support for the Japanese leader or heterogeneous responses depending on their political positions or historical beliefs? This study aims to unpack the mechanisms of public opinion shift alongside the public's awareness of territorial threats. (2)

Previous experimental work suggests that two existing theories account for such threat-induced public opinion shift. First, the "rally 'round the flag" effect (henceforth, the "rally effect") is a conventional theoretical framework to explain the impacts of threat perception on incumbent support--that is, voter approval of political leaders will increase when the country is under threat (Gaines 2002; Hetherington and Nelson 2003; Mueller 1973). More specifically, social psychological studies have demonstrated that the key mediator of the rally effect is anger, and that public support for the leader will be enhanced if they are provoked regardless of their partisanship and ideology. …

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