COLUMN ONE : Military in Japan Gets No Respect : Despite a huge defense budget, the formidable Self-Defense Forces are restricted by the constitution and society's ambivalence. Few young people want to enlist.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A seven-minute walk away from the riotous and affluent youth culture of the Shibuya entertainment district, Capt. Yasuo Yamashita sits at his steel desk in a small room on the fifth floor of a drab office building.

He has the look of somebody who has been waiting an unbearable length of time for the phone to ring or the door to swing open.

Yamashita is a recruiting officer for the Japanese military. Things are awfully slow these days, he confides, and getting slower. Here in this strategic center of the most populous city in the world, he signs up four or five people in a good month, mostly high school dropouts, to serve their country.

The business of enticing the brightest and best young Japanese into taking up arms has been a losing proposition ever since the atomic bombs of 1945 ended World War II. A stunned Japan adopted a post-war "peace constitution," forever renouncing the sovereign right to have a military.

Some legal tinkering by politicians, however, allowed the creation in 1954 of what is euphemistically called the "Self-Defense Forces (SDF)." That military now has grown into a formidable fighting machine authorized to keep more than a quarter-million ground troops, sailors and airmen in uniform. Pacifist Japan's defense budget can be calculated, depending on fluctuating currency exchange rates, as the third, fourth or fifth highest in the world--in the ballpark with France and Britain.

But to Yamashita's chagrin, Japanese society tries its darndest to pretend the Self-Defense Forces aren't really out there. His recruiting is handicapped by this lack of public acceptance, as well as unattractive housing and benefits. And prospects soon may worsen as the number of Japanese in the right age group declines and a less-threatening Soviet Union may soon rob the military of its main sense of purpose.

The public's ambivalent attitude about the military is shared by the government, as evidenced by Japan's belated response Aug. 29 to the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Officials are now frantically trying to put together a team of 100 volunteer medical workers to send to the gulf because it was deemed "unconstitutional" to tap the well-trained Self-Defense Forces, even for noncombat personnel.

Defense Agency Chief Yozo Ishikawa, according to news reports, was excluded from Cabinet deliberations on American requests that Japan join other allies in projecting some kind of military presence, even a symbolic one, in the peace-keeping effort.

Instead, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu declared to the world that his country would stand by its dedication to pacifist commercialism.

Since that initial response, however, several leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have urged the government to reconsider current constitutional interpretations and last Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Misoji Sakamoto announced that such a re-examination of the constitution was being considered.

Japan, which imports 70% of its oil from the Middle East, is not barred by its constitution from providing logistical support for American soldiers digging in to defend Japan's national interests, Kaifu said. The figure on the table now is $1 billion.

Back at home, military personnel are frustrated, perhaps demoralized, but long conditioned to resigning themselves to a pariah status. Consider Yamashita, the recruiting officer. He wears a business suit and tie to the office.

"We're out on the front lines, the contact point with the public," he said. "A lot of people might think it was strange if we wore uniforms."

To make matters worse, Yamashita must now battle adverse demographic trends as well as social stigma. The population of 18-year-olds is about to peak at 1.05 million and is projected to fall below 900,000 by the mid-1990s. With the domestic economy expanding rapidly and creating a shortage of unskilled labor, the unpopular military gets short shrift.

Already, the army cannot fill one out of every four authorized positions in its lower enlisted ranks, according to the 1989 Defense White Paper. Last year, the Defense Agency had to lower its recruiting goal by 13%. This year, the upper age limit was raised from 25 to 27. A proposal is in the works to reconfigure the structure of the forces around fewer ground troops.

"The Self-Defense Forces still aren't accepted by the public," Yamashita said. "It would make my job much easier if there was greater recognition, but many young people are simply opposed to us. Their teachers are against us. The opposition politicians are against us."

Graduates of the National Defense Academy are increasingly reneging on military careers--in March, 60 of the 425 graduating cadets opted for careers in the private sector. There is no penalty for refusing commissions, but it was almost unheard of until a few years ago.

"The SDF's social purpose has become so ambiguous that students no longer feel a sense of purpose in the service," an academy officer recently told the newspaper Yomiuri.

In an essay published in a military magazine earlier this year, 1st Lt. Kazue Sato, 28, chief of the Ground Self-Defense Forces' women education corps, grappled with the problem of public acceptance.

"What the SDF most needs now is the trust of the Japanese people," Sato wrote. "In order to build up this trust, wouldn't it help to dispatch SDF members to disaster areas?"

In fact, disaster relief is about the only truly conspicuous activity permitted the military inside Japan. Proposals to send them abroad as good Samaritans are still in the "consensus-building" stage, which means the idea is still too controversial to seriously consider taking action.

In a survey conducted last year by the prime minister's office, 72.2% of the respondents supported sending military personnel overseas for disaster relief. But nearly half were opposed to military participation in United Nations peacekeeping forces, a concept approved by only 22.4%.

No opinion polls addressing Japan's possible role in the gulf peacekeeping effort have been published.

But so strong is the aversion to any hint of military confrontation that seamen's unions and airline officials blocked the government from committing Japanese commercial vessels to transporting military hardware or troops in the Persian Gulf effort. Even where non-military cargo is involved, Japanese crews demand guarantees that there will be absolutely no risk. Kaifu's solution was to offer to pay the cost of chartering ships and planes from other countries.

To be sure, resistance to Japan's stepping forward and assuming more of the trappings of a global power in the present Mideast crisis comes as much from outside the country as within. Old victims of Imperial Army aggression have let it be known that their skin crawls at any sign of Japanese revanchism.

"I think Japan's neighbors would be uncomfortable if there were uniformed people sent out to the gulf," a U.S. official conceded.

Indeed, one argument for maintaining Japan's dependent security ties to the United States is that the American troop presence here is reassuring to Asian countries such as Korea and the Philippines.

But the strongest constraint on Japan's military posture appears to be a genuine streak of idealism reflecting a horrified backlash to the last war.

"There's a mentality, especially in the older generation, that says the military got us into the last fix and we will never let that happen again," said the U.S. official, a knowledgeable observer who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name. "That attitude colors everything to do with the military."

Real confusion comes in to the equation, however, when the government continues to mobilize considerable taxpayer resources to defend Japan against the Soviet military threat in the Far East, a concept that is dying hard despite superpower detente and dramatic reforms in the socialist bloc.

Even the Soviet focus may soon dissipate. Kaifu has reportedly asked the Defense Agency to delete a routine reference to the Soviet threat in the 1990 edition of the agency's white paper, due out later this month. The change will be good for detente, but it is likely to cast the Japanese military further adrift.

"If asked whether they were willing to go to war tomorrow, I think there'd be some strong psychological problems," the U.S. official said. "A peacekeeping mission like (that) in the gulf would be good for morale. It would give them a sense of purpose."

Ironically, American occupation authorities were the ones who drafted the 1947 peace constitution, and forced it on reluctant Japanese political leaders.

"The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes," Article 9 of the constitution states. "Land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

The Self-Defense Forces got their start in 1950 when Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered the creation of a 75,000-man "police reserve force" to keep order while occupying U.S. troops were busy in the Korean War. Eventually, Japan was perceived as a loyal anti-communist ally that could help hold Soviet and Chinese hegemony in check if it had more than just a token military.

The limits would be tested repeatedly over the post-war era, until Japan's right to self-defense was recognized by the courts and--more or less--accepted by the public.

Egged on by Washington, Tokyo developed a modern and sophisticated defense structure, testing a de facto budgetary ceiling of 1% of the gross national product, a rising cap because of steady economic growth. The fiscal 1990 defense budget, approved by Parliament in June, totals 4.2 trillion yen (nearly $30 billion at current exchange rates), up 6.1% from the previous year.

Defense hawks are pushing for more. An aircraft carrier is under consideration. A basic plank of Kaifu's ruling Liberal Democratic Party platform is constitution revision, and several right-wing party leaders advocate changing the Self-Defense Law to prevail over constitutional taboos and allow overseas deployment.

In May, the Japan Forum on International Relations issued a report urging that the military's capabilities be upgraded substantially.

"It is fair to say the SDF, as presently constituted, does not provide an effective deterrent to a conventional attack on Japanese territory," said the group of academics headed by former Foreign Minister Saburo Okita.

But there is more at question than mere weaponry in keeping the military prepared. One of the urgent tasks now at hand is to improve abysmal housing and welfare conditions for enlisted men and women to stem the trend of declining recruitment. Spartan double-tiered bunks are gradually being replaced by single beds. New, more fashionable uniforms are under design.

A poster on the door to Yamashita's office shows the kind of desperate image-making being mustered to seduce new recruits--an attractive young woman in camouflage fatigues is shown grinning from atop an army green trail bike.

Another ubiquitous recruitment poster depicts a sleepy couple in black pajamas. The man scratches his head next to a bold red-lettered slogan that asks, "Peace--Is it Something That Can Be Taken for Granted?"

In a typical attempt to soften the military's face, the Defense Ministry last year distributed a free booklet to the public illustrated with cartoons, the "Visual Defense Reader." On its cover, cute characters lean out of a tank, a fighter jet and a submarine behind a happy cartoon family. The same comic-book image appears in a recruiting pamphlet in Yamashita's office, with the caption: "Searching for unlimited possibilities, in an at-home atmosphere."

A degree of domestic comfort may actually be in store. Construction started this year on new barracks that for the first time will house women and men under the same roof, though on different floors. The women's floor would be off limits to men, but the plan envisions fraternization in lounges, with soft-drink vending machines by the stairwells.

A new emphasis is being placed on enlisting women, who now make up about 2% of the forces, compared with about 10% for the U.S. military. About one-fifth of the approximately 4,900 Japanese women already in uniform are nurses.

Women are not eligible for combat jobs, but the military is one of only a few employers in Japan that offer equal wages to both sexes. The money is not bad for an unskilled woman without a high school diploma. Base pay starts at about $850 a month, plus bonuses and severance pay, as well as room and board. In 1992, the Defense Academy will start enrolling women cadets.

Ultimately, the draw of the military appears to be that of stable, civil-service style employment, rather than the patriotism that is often the motivation for American recruits.

"I'm in this to make a steady living," said Sgt. Hideyuki Ichikawa, 29, a bookkeeper who joined the Ground Self-Defense Forces 10 years ago. "At first, I thought I'd stay in four years, but it wasn't easy to find work on the outside. Now, I'm just at the point where I'm getting good at my job."

Ichikawa was interviewed after a SDF training exercise Saturday near Mt. Fuji, in which the public was entertained by tanks, missiles and a steel-helmeted army band playing Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture"--with percussion provided by real cannons.

Pvt. Sono Naito, 18, said she signed up in April after ruling out training as a policewoman. She wants to make a career out of the military.

"I wanted to do something special, something more than just ordinary work," Naito said. "My high school girlfriends thought I was a little strange, but I'm learning a lot--like how to not waste time."

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