SDF members pursue sense of mission

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Once plagued by a shortage of personnel and considered the last resort for employment, young people now consider the Self-Defense Forces a popular career option.

In fiscal 2003, 10,113 people applied for 221 general and technical officer candidate positions in the three branches of the military — a ratio of 45.8 to 1. The competition ratio had hovered around 10 to 1 until the early 1990s. It fell to just 4.4 to 1 in fiscal 1991.

Enlistee ranks that had been almost exclusively dominated by high school graduates are now in many cases filled by college graduates.

At a Maritime Self-Defense Force training base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, 40.3 percent of the petty officer candidates in this year’s basic course have a college degree.

“I chose the SDF because I think the service is the place where I can do something to benefit others,” said Takashi Kashiwagi, 23, one such candidate.

Having studied politics at Takushoku University in Tokyo, Kashiwagi said he first turned to numerous companies to seek work but could not find the right career.

He said the dispatch of MSDF ships to the Indian Ocean in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, as part of Japan’s support for the U.S.-led war on terror, inspired him to sign up.

The same can be said of many new recruits in the Ground Self-Defense Force, which had long fallen short of the personnel strength stipulated by the nation’s defense policy outline. Until the early 1990s, the GSDF was operating at only about 85 percent of its designated force level.

At the Asaka GSDF Garrison on the Tokyo-Saitama border, the nation’s only female GSDF boot camp, new recruits cited the branch’s rescue activities in 1995 after the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system as motives for joining.

“Iraq and the Great Hanshin Earthquake, these are not (missions) anyone can do. I want to help others,” a recruit said, referring to the GSDF troops now deployed to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. Another recruit said she had quit a job with a bank to join the GSDF.

“Morale is very high,” said Sgt. Yukari Shiba, a 25-year-old instructor who joined the GSDF seven years ago.

“However, some recruits cry during combat exercises, saying they don’t want to perform assault drills because they joined the SDF to help people,” added Sgt. Keiko Nakanowatari, 25, another instructor. “That is a little bit worrisome.”

Social recognition of the SDF has not been high in part because the Constitution renounces war and the maintenance of a military. Many SDF officers say they feel a tinge of envy when they consider how their American counterparts are treated in the United States.

Attracting recruits used to be a big headache for the SDF, especially at times when the economy was booming and companies offered lucrative salaries. Even state-of-the-art destroyers had always been undermanned.

Equally challenging was how to keep up enlistee morale, especially when subjecting them to rigorous training, according to some SDF officers.

Service members who stayed in the SDF for any length of time also realized the severe legal constraints on their activities. Opportunities for live fire drills are extremely limited, for example, and tight rules and conditions are imposed on use of weapons when they are deployed, even for self-defense. Many members interpret these limits as a sign of public distrust, the officers said.

Officers say their ranks are roughly divided into three generations.

Those age 50 and over opted to sign up when the SDF was still in its early stage and many university students of their age were protesting in the streets over Japan’s continued security treaty with the United States.

These men are strong-minded and tend to believe deeply in the need for a military, the officers say. They are now small in number but hold the highest ranks.

The middle generation joined during the mid-1970s and 1980s, at a time of economic boom and apparent public indifference toward the SDF.

Many of these recruits reportedly had no specific reason for signing up. Some said they just happened to pass the National Defense Academy entrance exam, which is free and held earlier than entry tests for most universities and colleges.

Some even claimed they were duped by recruiters who described the SDF as a dream job with a stable salary. They include those who failed to board the economic-boom bandwagon and had nowhere else to go.

Many of the youngest generation of recruits may have been prompted to sign up by the SDF’s participation in rescue missions, such as those after the Hanshin quake, and United Nations-led peacekeeping operations, which signaled the first overseas deployments of SDF troops. These recruits are highly motivated and highly educated, the officers say.

Air Self-Defense Force Warrant Officer Tatsuo Kubota, 51, an air paramedic, signed up in 1971. He, like many who came on board in the years after him, struggled to come to grips with their SDF identity.

“At that time, many people were questioning the mere existence of the SDF. But I had this image of the SDF as Japan’s final line of defense if anything happens,” he said.

Kubota came to this conviction after watching SDF members on TV rush to typhoon and earthquake disaster sites to help rescue people and aid in rebuilding efforts.

After basic training, Kubota became an air crew survival equipment specialist, inspecting and maintaining parachutes, emergency radios and life rafts.

Although he knew his work was vital to the safety of airmen, he also grew frustrated because there were few emergency situations he could put his skills to the test.

“I had a hard time proving to myself that I was a survival equipment specialist,” he said.

Looking for change, and more rewarding duties, Kubota had an opportunity early in his stint to observe parachute training of an ASDF rescue unit in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

The Air Rescue Wing’s main mission is search and rescue of downed aircrews. The unit’s paramedics also care for civilians.

Kubota soon volunteered for the 11-month basic air rescue training course, which accepts only four selected men under the age of 25 each year. The course includes diving, parachuting and ranger training.

Since then, he has completed nearly 50 civilian rescue missions, ranging from descending from a helicopter onto a ship in distress, or searching for people missing in the ocean or in the mountains — most of the time in extremely bad weather.

“This rescue wing is very popular with young SDF members. The guys here get a sense of fulfillment because they receive gratitude from the people,” said Maj Gen. Yuji Shibata, commander of the Air Rescue Wing.

“We are not God,” he said. “It’s really hard to press on when you do not feel any public response.”

Although Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi intends to expand the SDF role abroad, those engaged in such rewarding missions as peacekeeping and disaster relief will remain a fraction of the 240,000-strong organization.

Disaster relief and peacekeeping — both falling under the international contribution category — are still of secondary status under the SDF law, which prioritizes national defense.

Shibata said the SDF’s “invisible duty of national defense” is still little understood by the public, dampening morale in the services.

Recently, recruiters have had to go to great lengths to explain the SDF’s missions, said an officer in charge of personnel.

The world’s fourth-largest military in terms of funding may be recognized more as an international cooperation or disaster relief agency by young people who want to sign up.

“I do not want to go to war,” one new recruit said. “If (the SDF) were a military, I might not have joined it.”