As President Hu Jintao prepares to visit Tokyo, Japanese people are contemplating their giant neighbour's emergence as a global power with a mix of fear and wonder after the mainland's heavy-handed response to the protests in Tibet. The unrest and violence that erupted have tarnished Beijing's image and drawn fierce criticism from the west. The Japanese, who had never shown much interest in the Free Tibet Campaign in the past, reacted strongly to the protests. In an online survey conducted a few days after the street violence in Lhasa on March 14, 78 per cent of Japanese respondents said their government should boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, China watcher Yukio Wani, a journalist and former history teacher, said. The strong reactions from the Japanese surprised some mainland experts, who initially thought the Tibet issue would have only a moderate effect on Sino-Japanese ties. Satoshi Amako, director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, said Tibet had soured Sino-Japanese ties at a crucial time when the relationship between the two historic rivals had started to thaw. 'Bilateral ties have greatly improved over the past few years. Prime ministers [Shinzo] Abe and [Yasuo] Fukuda refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Exchanges between the two countries are more extensive and more in-depth than before,' Professor Amako said. 'But the poisoned dumpling incident and the Tibet issue have soured Japanese people's feelings. If the Chinese leadership doesn't find good solutions to these problems, Mr Hu's visit will be difficult.' Professor Amako said most Japanese people were concerned about developments in Tibet because they were a sign of deeper problems on the mainland. 'In the past, the Tibet issue was not [as important] in the Sino-Japanese relationship, but now it is hot,' Professor Amako said. 'Japanese people do not support independence for Tibet, but we are puzzled why the Chinese government refused to [resolve the issue] through open dialogue. 'Beijing says the negotiations with the Dalai Lama are fruitless because he wants full independence from China. But the Dalai has already denied that and says he is only pushing for greater autonomy.' Professor Amako said many Japanese intellectuals believed the real reason for Beijing's reluctance to give true autonomy to Tibetans was that it might lead to demands for political reform from other minorities. 'We believe the Tibet problem is rooted in the backward political system in China and the Chinese government's refusal to move towards democracy. 'The Japanese do not oppose China's rise, but we want to see it moving towards a democratic and free society. China's way of handling Tibet worries us and makes us question [the path it is following].' Professor Amako said that without a democratic and transparent political system, China leaves its neighbours guessing. 'If China were a democratic and open society, Japanese people would feel more at ease,' he said. 'Even if China spent a lot of money on military modernisation, people wouldn't be as worried [as they are now]. 'That is why the Tibet issue, for us, is an important topic. It is an indication of the democratic process in China.' The nationalist sentiment aroused in young people in China by the Tibet protests also worries the Japanese public. 'When I saw young Chinese people protesting against CNN [for a commentator's alleged anti-China bias], I immediately remembered the massive anti-Japanese protests in 2005,' said a Japanese journalist who refused to be named. 'Japanese people are weary of the rising nationalism in China. We often become the target whenever there is an outbreak of nationalism in China.'