Japan: The People and “its” Military – an ambivalent Relationship

If the military is not shown trust or respect by its own people, how shall professional pride develop? It is not easy for a professional army if its profession is even considered unconstitutional and is viewed negatively for political reasons. The people have the responsibility to enshrine the military in the constitution.

Through public relations, the military generally strives to be open and close to its own people. The people, on the other hand, are trying to understand their military so that they can trust their armed forces. Thus, respect for one’s own military on the one hand and the loyalty of the military to the state are created. Normally, there is not much to discuss about.

Recently, however, an event organized by a city and the Japanese military (SDF) was cancelled. The Communist Party and its affiliated organizations also demanded the cancellation of an already planned military air show on the grounds that military combat uniforms and fighter jets are linked to war and therefore war is conceivable.

Rescue operations in the event of disasters and national defense

The Japanese military has received a great deal of understanding and gratitude from its people, as the troops are tirelessly deployed in the event of natural disasters for rescue operations and patient transports. By September 2018, the Japanese armed forces had already been deployed three times: in June in earthquakes, in July and August in severe weather, and again in September in earthquakes.  In 2017, the armed forces were deployed in 501 cases (in 2016 in 516 cases). On average over the last 10 years, the number of cases has been more than 500 per year, of which 1% to 4% have been due to natural disasters such as massive snow or rain or forest fires and earthquakes, and about 80% to patient transports.[1] China’s bold expansionist policy, the unclear state of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, and also the Russian military near Japanese territory are forcing Japanese forces to deploy on a permanent basis.  For example, the number of scrambles (caused mostly by Russian and Chinese machines) is 904 in 2017 and 1168 in 2016.[2] Chinese Coast Guard ships routinely enter Japanese territorial waters near the disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japan’s coast guard reacts to this, but the Japanese naval forces have to back them.

Lack of soldiers

The Japanese military currently consists of about 224,000 persons (90.8% fulfillment), which represents about 0.2% of the total population of Japan.  In view of the increasingly delicate situation around Japan and the simultaneous increase in natural disasters, the Japanese armed forces are undermanned. A particularly serious problem is the level of fulfillment of the soldiers: only 69.5% in March 2017.[3] It is known that the better the economy, the more difficult recruitment becomes. Soldiers are usually employees on a 2 to 3 years limited period, and they can extend 2 years. After that, they either leave the SDF or become permanent employees. Maintaining a squad of qualified non-commissioned officers is becoming increasingly difficult also because of the shrinking of the number of soldiers. In addition, there is a lack of recruitment support from the municipalities. It would certainly be helpful to develop more attractive social plans for soldiers (usually aged between 20 and 26) who leave the SDF after temporary employment and also for non-commissioned officers with a retirement age of 53 years. However, this is a financially problematic view.

Distorted development of pacifism

Japan’s armed forces are domestically always confronted with uncertain and demotivating positions. According to the Japanese constitution, Japan is not allowed to maintain an army; scientists have been arguing for many years about the legality or illegality of the SDF under the current constitution.  Incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has considered amending the constitution. Japan’s constitution, dictated by the US after World War II, has not yet undergone any changes at all. Especially Article 9, renunciation of the military, repeatedly triggers fierce arguments among politicians, scientists and the people.

 Pacifism in Japan could also have developed in this way. According to a government survey conducted in January 2018, 31.4% of respondents showed a lack of interest in the Japanese armed forces. In contrast, 85.5% considered that there was a risk that Japan could be attacked in the current situation or that it could be involved in a war. However, an even more striking result is that 19.6% of respondents in the case of foreign invasions would show resistance without violence and 6. 6% would not resist at all.[4] Such a behavior is probably due to the idea that no one will attack Japan if Japan does not attack others. Japan should therefore not have a military, and as a result of Article 9 of the Constitution, renunciation of the military, peace can be guaranteed.

This defensive behavior against the SDF may also be based on the propaganda actions of China and Korea. Opinions and texts on Okinawa’s independence from Japan have been published for some years, which is a new phenomenon. Political relations between Okinawa and China have also reportedly grown stronger. The disputed Senkaku Islands are part of Okinawa Prefecture, but Okinawa’s governor does not criticize China despite daily threats from China’s coast guard and fishing boats. On Okinawa also U.S. troops are stationed since the geographical and strategic location of the island is significant. It was reported that there were South Koreans and Japanese living outside Okinawa in demonstrations against the US bases on Okinawa.[5] Alleged Chinese support for the demonstrations has also been reported in the US and Japan.

Although Mr. Abe wants to amend Article 9 of the constitution and enshrine the existence of the military, there are strong opponents within his party. For the Japanese armed forces, such political understandings and also the tense financial situation (lack of attractive social plans) have a rather demotivating effect on their profession and tasks.


Although the Japanese express gratitude to the SDF as a rescue team in case of emergencies or disasters, they show little interest in the actual SDF task, namely the national defense. This is also clearly shown by the results of above-mentioned survey. Both the main interest and the greatest expectation of the people in the SDF lies in disaster response. But it would be important to keep an eye on reality and be unbiased towards the SDF in the face of the increasingly dangerous situation around Japan. Only then real and constructive discussions about the SDF, defense policy and also a constitutional amendment can be started. Article 9 of the Constitution, renunciation of the military, cannot, unfortunately, defend Japan and the people. Public Relations incl. events are good ways for the people to approach their armed forces. Eliminating such opportunities through coercion and protest is not constructive. Premier Abe is still in office for another three years. It is said that if a constitutional amendment  fails within his remaining term, it could take 50 years or more for the issue to come back on the table in earnest. The Japanese armed forces will then remain illegal and not respected by the people; moreover, no professional pride develops in such a situation. It is high time that Japan trusts its own military and is proud of it.

[1] Joint Staff Press Release, Japan Ministry of Defense, April 30, 2018. http://www.mod.go.jp/js/Press/press2018/press_pdf/p20180420_01.pdf

[2] Joint Staff Press Release, Japan Ministry of Defense, July 18, 2018. http://www.mod.go.jp/js/Press/press2018/press_pdf/p20180718_02.pdf

[3] Defense Paper 2017, Japan Ministry of Defense. http://www.mod.go.jp/j/profile/mod_sdf/kousei/

[4] Cabinet Office, Government of Japan, 2018. https://survey.gov-online.go.jp/h29/h29-bouei/gairyaku.pdf

[5] Sankei Shinbun: Kagekika suru Okinawa Hankichiundou (aggresiver Angi-US military bases), June 5, 2017. https://www.sankei.com/affairs/news/170605/afr1706050018-n1.html

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