Masaki Tomiyama is desperate.
Every few days, he takes to the streets of his Fukuoka neighborhood with a microphone in hand, and makes an impassioned speech against a set of unpopular security bills bulldozed through the Diet by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling bloc four months ago.
The 52-year-old is fighting for his own son — a junior Ground Self-Defense Force serviceman who he fears may be dragged into foreign conflicts once the contentious law takes effect in March as scheduled. The law, enacted based on Abe’s reinterpretation of the pacifist Constitution, enables the Self-Dense Forces to fight abroad as part of collective self-defense — or defending allies from aggression — marking the first time Japanese forces could engage in combat since World War II.
“I can never, never allow my son to go off to a war,” Tomiyama said of his 21-year-old son in a recent interview.
“I don’t want him to get murdered. Nor do I want to see him turn into a murderer.”
Unlike many family members of SDF personnel, Tomiyama freely speaks out against the government — although he admits it is a matter of time before the military tracks down the son and somehow “starts treating him unfavorably.”
As the law’s implementation nears, Tomiyama’s one-man fight sheds light on the simmering dismay felt by many SDF families at the possibility of their loved ones being entangled in U.S.-led wars.
Interviews with former and current SDF servicemen, however, point to a widening gap between the way families and the members perceive the law, with the latter mostly unfazed by the prospect of partaking in a foreign war.
Some, in fact, wholeheartedly support the law, optimistic it will help put the SDF on a par with military forces worldwide and even dispel deep-set public animosity against their organization.
Shunji Suga was one of the Tokyo-based lawyers involved in launching a two-day telephone hotline for SDF families in mid-September to allay their distress linked to the security bills’ imminent enactment.
Suga’s project coincided with a similar service spearheaded by Sapporo-based lawyer Hirofumi Sato, and together the two hotlines garnered about 40 calls from worried parents, wives and fiancees of SDF personnel, the lawyers said.
“At that time, lots of families opposed to the bills said they were frustrated because they couldn’t join anti-war rallies near the Diet building,” Suga said.
By law, SDF personnel are prohibited from engaging in political activities, such as by supporting demonstrations or proclaiming opposition to a particular political party. As such, Suga said, many SDF members pressured their families to steer clear of these rallies to avoid their loyalty to the military being questioned.
“My son says he’s determined to go to war if he is ordered so, even though he has two little kids,” a mother of a 40-something Ground Self-Defense Force member told the Tokyo hotline, according to a document provided by Suga. “I never dreamed my own son would fight in an armed conflict. . . . I’m worried that shooting somebody to death might make him lose his sanity.”
“He keeps telling me he has to go to war for the sake of Japan’s national interests. But that thinking reminds me of those soldiers who marched toward the war under the rule of Imperial Japan, only to wind up getting killed,” said another soldier’s wife.
Despite such widespread trepidation among families, SDF servicemen themselves don’t seem to share their despair, and many even seem nonchalant.
“As an SDF member, you’re not supposed to think for yourself. All you do is obey an order from above. It doesn’t matter whether you like the assignment or not,” former serviceman Yoshifumi Uzawa, 27, said. Uzawa said he believed the majority of SDF members were not worried about possibly being involved in a foreign war.
Take Akira Terada, a Kanto-based high-ranking serviceman in his 20s.
“I have no qualms about going to war. If it’s my mission, all I do is perform it as I’m told,” Terada (not his real name) said, asking that his identity be withheld to protect privacy.
The serviceman, who has a 30-plus group of subordinates and whose main responsibility is to draw up an annual training plan for his troops, said he was “largely supportive” of the security law.
Terada said he believed enabling the SDF to exercise its right to collective self-defense will elevate Japan’s global standing to a point where it will “finally be treated as an equal” to its ally nations such as the U.S.
“Because of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan isn’t in the same league as other countries,” the serviceman said, noting how Japan suffered international disrepute when, in its response to the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991, it didn’t commit troops to the U.S-led coalition force but opted for what was dubbed “checkbook diplomacy” by contributing $13 billion to help repulse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
By strengthening Japan’s ties with the U.S., the law, he added, will also serve as a powerful deterrent against global threats such as China’s increasing assertiveness.
Tomoaki Hida, 27, who left the SDF earlier last year after about 10 years of service, said he hoped the legislation will pave the way for the defense force’s transformation into a full-fledged military. Hida (not his real name) likewise noted he didn’t wish to be identified to avoid causing trouble for a family member still in the military.
“I never understood why we were not treated as soldiers, but (instead like) public servants, even though there is no denying that the SDF, in practice, is a military,” Hida said.
The pacifist Constitution, which proscribes Japan’s possession of war-waging capacity, has long forced the government to maintain that the SDF is a quasi-military organization specializing in self-defense. More muscular defense policies set forth by the security legislation, Hida said, signaled an improvement in the SDF’s status and hopefully will result in the organization being granted more budgets to further enhance its weaponry.
Serviceman Terada agrees.
Noting the SDF’s weaponry, such as guns, artillery, missiles and tanks boast a “top-notch” quality, Terada, too, voiced confusion that he was not seen as a soldier.
“In countries such as the U.S., for example, soldiers are often an object of public admiration, whereas in Japan SDF personnel still face staunch public antagonism. In some regions, we can’t even hold a drill amid strong complaints from residents over noise,” Terada said, adding he hoped the law will raise public awareness of what “noble” jobs the SDF does.
“We risk our lives to protect our people just like police and firefighters do. I hope, for example, that the law will eventually make the SDF one of the most popular professions among kids.”
Terada, however, may be too optimistic.
Applications this year for training positions to become petty officers and sergeants were the lowest in nine years at 25,092, representing a 20 percent decrease from a year earlier, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman confirmed.
The ministry accepted applications for the position from Aug. 1 through Sept. 8, which coincided with the Diet’s heated debate over the security bills ahead of their enactment.
The spokeswoman attributed the drop to the improved economy and a resulting increase in job openings among private companies. She rejected that public misgivings about the security bills scared away young job-seekers.
The decrease in young applicants could be exacerbated by the security legislation, dealing a further blow to the SDF’s already serious manpower shortage and, ultimately, taking a heavy toll on the mental health of personnel, according to Mari Tamagawa, a former SDF member who now works as a clinical psychotherapist in Hiroshima.
Defense Ministry data show that while the number of officers and other veterans accounted for more than 90 percent of quotas as of the end of March, junior members such as seamen and airmen were in short supply, at 74.6 percent of quotas.
The number of these young personnel, Tamagawa said, could take a further hit now that more parents appeared to be opposed to the idea of their children joining the SDF due to what they saw as the increased danger of them being ensnared in a U.S-led war.
“The SDF, then, would naturally become desperate to hire as many applicants as possible, even at the cost of lowering expected standards for them,” Tamagawa, 42, said.
“But the increase in subpar personnel means competent members will need to take up the slack and be burdened with a heavier workload to the point that they burn out, break down and, in the worst-case scenario, commit suicide.”