Staff writer

KASUGA, Fukuoka Pref. — Early Sunday morning, 671 locals from throughout Kyushu and Okinawa gathered at the Ground Self-Defense Forces’ Camp Fukuoka, dressed in camouflage suits and armed with Type-64 7.62mm rifles.

Their occupations are diverse: fisherman, farmer, cab driver, housewife. Some have hair dyed brown or shaved heads. Some boast beards, wear sunglasses or have loud, red undershirts peeking out from under their uniforms. Others look average.

Granted the title of ready reserve self-defense officials, these otherwise ordinary citizens will play a vital role as GSDF troops in emergencies. The GSDF, having introduced the reserve system last fiscal year in a step toward streamlining its regular force, started the first two-day training session Saturday with the 4th Division in the Western Army.

Taking the lead in the GSDF program, the 4th Division has adopted 769 reservists in one of its four infantry regiments and other related corps. The division plans to adopt 604 more reservists by the end of fiscal 1999. The Tohoku and Chubu armies have also started recruiting reservists.

“As you all know, the GSDF has embarked on the biggest reform since it was formed (in 1954),” Lt. Gen. Masahiro Nakatani, head of the GSDF’s 4th Division, said as he addressed the 671 ready reserve members, along with about 500 regular GSDF troops, at Sunday’s inauguration. “I want you all to be proud of taking the challenge to become part of this project, which will be a model for the GSDF from this point on,” Nakatani said.

The ready reserve system is a main feature of the new National Defense Program Outline authorized by the Cabinet in 1995. The outline calls for streamlining Japan’s defense forces in view of the changing international military situation, a decrease in the youth population and the nation’s financial strains.

If the project is carried out as planned, the GSDF troop levels will eventually drop to 160,000, down 20,000 from the current number. Of the 160,000, 15,000 will be reservists. They will act in concert with regular troops only when summoned by the Defense Agency chief to keep order, provide disaster relief or serve at the front in case of a military emergency.

None of these crucial missions has been assigned to the current 46,000 GSDF reservists, who train only five days a year to engage in rear-echelon support in military emergencies. The ready reservists, however, will drill for 30 days a year and be paid about 600,000 yen annually as part-time national public servants.

Only those who once served as self-defense officials or reserve service members are eligible to become ready reservists. Many were forced to quit the SDF, often because of family problems or failure to be promoted to a higher rank.

The new system comes as a second opportunity for such returnees who still want to be part of the nation’s forces. “I quit the SDF in late 1993 when a flood hit my hometown in Kagoshima Prefecture while I was engaged in peacekeeping operations in Cambodia,” said Atsushi Kariya, 30, a corporal-turned-farmer. He said his time as a regular reservist was not satisfying. “Being a ready reservist, I actually belong to a corps and lead a disciplined life,” Kariya said, adding that he is looking forward to participating in international activities with the GSDF.

Hisako Takata, 31, said she felt uptight during Sunday’s inauguration ceremony because she is still not used to wearing a uniform after quitting the SDF when she married a decade ago. “I feel tense, being provided with my own room and equipment,” she said. “I want to show society that even a woman like me, a housewife with three kids, can do it.”

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