Although Self-Defense Forces members spend their careers in and out of classes and camps, for many it is their initial basic training and education that prove the most memorable.
Young officer candidates engage in five to 12 months of basic training at cadet schools; enlistees spend three to five months at boot camps throughout the country.
Although officer candidate schools also foster leadership skills, all basic training stresses discipline, group unity and morality — key components of military life.
“You can see a big change (in recruits) in the first month, or even in the first week,” said Maritime Self-Defense Force Cmdr. Yoshinari Nakaue, who is in charge of basic training at the Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture.
One obvious change can be seen after new recruits with dyed hair and those with hair below their shoulders are taken to the camp barber.
All recruits wake up to reveille at 6 a.m. — 6:30 a.m. in the winter — and assemble to salute the Hinomaru flag as it is raised. They live four to five to a room and are taught how to clean their quarters properly and make their beds. A single wrinkle will cause the instructor to pull the sheet off.
Recruits do everything as a group and are kept busy with classes and physical training until lights-out.
Basic training “makes it possible for the recruits to put up with anything after they leave here to be assigned to a unit,” Nakaue said.
Education for real career officers starts even earlier than officer candidate schools.
The National Defense Academy turns out about 400 graduates a year, each with the rank of either sergeant major in the Ground Self-Defense Force, master chief petty officer in the Maritime Self-Defense Force or chief master sergeant in the Air Self-Defense Force.
The graduates are then sent directly to officer candidate schools and are put on fast career tracks.
All the top posts — chiefs of staff of the three branches of the SDF and chairman of the Joint Staff Council — have been dominated by Defense Academy graduates since 1991, the first time academy graduates occupied all four positions.
The Defense Academy was established in 1953 with the strong support of then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. He reportedly wanted to make it an institution that would train “democratic” service members, not militarists as in the prewar and wartime eras.
The curriculum follows the education ministry’s standards for universities, and students study liberal arts, selecting a major in social studies or sciences, in addition to defense studies.
One important feature of the academy is that students are grouped into four battalions, each with four companies. Each company has three platoons.
This system teaches the students to live in a group and to follow the basic chain of command.