Since their contentious founding, the Self-Defense Forces have never had to defend Japan from attack. But a new world paradigm is prompting rapid changes in the SDF that ultimately may make the military better suited, both mentally and operationally, to today’s realities and threats.
The First Airborne Brigade based in the Narashino Garrison in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, for example, was upgraded in late March. Three infantry battalions — each consisting of some 400 paratroops — now occupy the space previously taken up by 800 ground troops.
Boasting elite personnel, the airborne brigade aims to achieve more rapid and flexible deployment in times of emergency.
The 270,000-sq.-meter Narashino garrison, the prewar home to the cavalry school of the Imperial Japanese Army, is now undergoing major revamp. New barracks are being built, and parking lots and landscaping are also in the works.
At the corners of the base, light armored vehicles — like those used by Ground Self-Defense Force troops in Iraq — await movement to the parking area.
Around 50 of these vehicles were brought to Narashino last year.
A special operations unit, the first of its kind within the GSDF, was set up at Narashino in March. It comprises airborne troops and individuals who have completed strenuous ranger training.
Amid Japan’s efforts to address threats such as terrorism and commando attacks, Narashino escaped the downsizing measures imposed on conventional SDF units.
“Iraq, natural disasters and peacekeeping missions — people have more expectations of us than ever,” Lt. Col. Shinichi Aoki, a new battalion commander, told his men when he assumed his post.
“That means people look at us more critically. If we betray their expectations, we will lose our raison d’etre.”
Regarding the global situation, he said: “We are surrounded by uncertainties. If something comes up, we will be given a mission.”
Since its official establishment 50 years ago, the SDF has never been mobilized en masse for its stated mission — to defend Japan.
The GSDF’s predecessor, the National Police Reserve, was hastily assembled at the behest of the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces in 1950.
The Occupation forces needed to move the bulk of their troops stationed in war-torn Japan to fight in the Korean War and wanted recently disarmed Japan to defend its own territory.
U.S. Army Col. Frank Kowalski, who was in charge of building the National Police Reserve as deputy chief of civil affairs, Japan, described the process as “a great lie.”
“Now, that noble human aspiration was to be crushed. A Great Lie — which would declare to the world that the Japanese Constitution did not mean what it said. A Great Lie — that soldiers, guns, tanks, cannons, rockets and airplanes were not war potentials,” he wrote in his detailed report, titled “The Rearmament of Japan.”
A naval force was similarly rebuilt by beefing up part of the coast guard and creating the Maritime Safety Security Force.
On July 1, 1954, these ground and naval forces were transformed into the Self-Defense Forces. The Air Self-Defense Force and the Defense Agency were created at the same time.
Since its controversial inception, however, the SDF has never been truly tested as a national defense force, as an uneasy peace was maintained during the Cold War.
Meanwhile, fear of a public outcry deterred politicians from establishing a systematic legal framework for deploying the SDF in the event of an attack — effectively until the Diet enacted war contingency legislation last year.
Thus, the major missions the First Airborne Brigade at Narashino have undertaken in the past half century had nothing to do with military emergencies.
One was to attempt to rescue survivors of a Japan Airlines jumbo jet crash in the mountains of Osutaka, Gunma Prefecture, in 1985. The other was a rescue mission following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995.
In both cases, airborne units were relied upon for mobility to rescue civilians.
In the meantime, paratroops have engaged in hard combat training.
Members of the First Airborne Brigade cherish opportunities to talk to former Imperial Army paratroops about their Pacific War battles.
“These are precious occasions to learn from those who fought real battles,” Aoki said.
The situation is effectively the same for other SDF members.
One exception is the MSDF Mine Warfare Force, which dealt with numerous mines laid around Japan during the war. Also seeing real postwar action were ASDF fighter pilots who scrambled nearly 1,000 times a year against unidentified aircraft entering Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone.
During the Cold War years, SDF weaponry and other equipment expanded both in quality and quantity, as did Japan’s economy.
Postwar Japan prioritized its economic recovery and relied on the U.S. for its defense under the bilateral security treaty. While successive administrations kept the military budget within about 1 percent of gross national product, the money spent on the SDF kept increasing in line with economic growth.
U.S. hand-me-downs — from tanks to warships — were replaced by state-of-the-art equipment, many of it made in Japan or produced here under license with original U.S. manufacturers.
But the SDF remained controversial long after its birth, with many viewing its very existence as unconstitutional.
Many SDF members in their late 40s and 50s remember being called “tax thieves” when they socialized in uniform. They also remember being urged by their schoolteachers not to sign up.
“My teacher refused to prepare (my) school reports (for submission to the National Defense Academy for enrollment exams),” an ASDF major general said. “My teacher was very kind to me and treated me very well, so I guess he couldn’t accept my joining the SDF.”
In this atmosphere, the First Airborne Brigade has served as a morale booster for other SDF elements. Airborne and ranger badges are admired by all SDF members.
Ranger badges are given to those who have undergone intense training and are carried by most airborne troops.
Aoki, 38, acquired both badges when he was in his late 20s. He said, nevertheless, that “however hard the training we do, it could all end in mere self-satisfaction.”
“These guys feel a real sense of fulfillment when they are sent on disaster relief missions or something like that.”
On the guest room wall at the First Airborne Brigade hangs a photo of GSDF Sgt. First Class Yuichi Sakuma dangling from a helicopter rope while rescuing Keiko Kawakami, one of the few survivors of the 1985 JAL crash.
In recent years, North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Iraq war have led to major changes in the SDF. Yet these events are probably having a bigger impact on the Japanese public.
SDF members have suddenly found themselves in the spotlight, expected to do anything from shooting down incoming missiles to hunting down terrorists and protecting people from chemical and biological attacks.
Some high-ranking officers appear to welcome this shift in public perception, though Aoki’s optimism is tempered.
Just before moving to Narashino to head his airborne battalion in March, he spent two years and eight months serving as chief media officer at the Ground Staff Office of the Defense Agency headquarters in Tokyo.
He saw Japan’s defense policy change dramatically after Sept. 11, 2001. War contingency legislation was enacted via an overwhelming majority in the Diet and the nation dispatched troops to Iraq.
It was probably the busiest period in the history of both the Defense Agency and the SDF. Aoki said he was only able to get two to three hours of sleep a day while he was at the Ground Staff Office.
Yet he tried to spare as much time as possible to talk with reporters over drinks at night.
“I just hoped that my contact would help deliver the real image of the SDF to the Japanese people, even if it takes a decade or so from now,” he said.