Perky cartoon character Prince Pickles — with saucer eyes, big dimples and tiny, booted feet — poses in front of tanks, rappels from helicopters and shakes hands with smiling Iraqis.

The cutesy icon hardly calls to mind the Japanese military that conquered and pillaged its way across Asia in the first half of the 20th century, and that is just the way the country’s leaders want it.

As Japan sheds its postwar pacifism and gears up to take a higher military profile in the world, it is enlisting cadres of cute characters and adorable mascots to put a gentle, harmless sheen to its Self-Defense Forces deployments.

“Prince Pickles is our image character because he’s very endearing, which is what Japan’s military stands for,” said Defense Ministry official Shotaro Yanagi. “He’s our mascot and appears in our pamphlets and stationery.”

Such characters have long been used in Japan to win hearts and minds and to soften the image of authority.

The Metropolitan Police Department tries to lighten its stern image with Peopo, which looks like a cross between a rabbit and a space trooper.

The government hopes the same tactic can work overseas.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso has proposed sending animation or cartoon artists abroad as cultural ambassadors, and the government has named a panel of experts to advise ways to market Japanese animation and culture to foreign audiences.

Aso argues warm feelings for Japanese animation can translate into warm feelings for Japanese foreign policy.

“The more positive images pop into a person’s mind, the easier it becomes for Japan to get its views across,” Aso said in a speech last year to budding artists at Tokyo’s Digital Hollywood University. “You are the people . . . involved with bringing Japanese culture to the world.”

The strategy faces considerable hurdles.

Many people in China and South Korea are still bitter over Japan’s wartime atrocities in the 1930s and ’40s, and moves to raise Tokyo’s military stature — like changing the pacifist Constitution — are not warmly welcomed.

Some critics also doubt cartoon characters will work outside Japanese culture, which exhibits an enduring fascination with childlike innocence — even in adults.

“This could only happen in a country that is so open to immaturity,” said Rika Kayama, a psychiatrist and author. “Authorities here feel it’s easier and less threatening to use characters to get the public to accept them, rather than explain the facts.”

The animated images mask real moves by Japan’s leaders to bolster nationalist sentiment and flex military muscles abroad.

The Defense Agency was upgraded to a full ministry in January, and the government is busy implementing education guidelines to instill a sense of patriotism in the classroom. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to rewrite the Constitution and expand military operations with Japan’s top ally, the United States.

Japan staged its first postwar military mission in a country at war in 2004 when it sent 600 noncombat troops to Iraq. The troops withdrew last year, but the government is eager to find another venue for a dispatch.

The cutesy phenomenon also has a dark side.

Artists were coerced to write cartoons that subtly spread militarist propaganda during the war. One series centered on a family cheering soldiers off to war and sharing provisions with neighbors. Other artists depicted Allied leaders as cowards or repulsive devils.

Some contemporary artists have used their characters to tout a more resurgent Japan, like the popular Yoshinori Kobayashi, who has sold millions of copies of “manga” comic books that claim Japan engaged in a noble war to liberate Asia from a racist world order.

Still, officials in Tokyo say their cute offensive is working. During the mission to Iraq, the SDF decorated water trucks with a figure from a globally popular Japanese soccer cartoon, variably known as Captain Tsubasa in Japanese, Flash Kicker in the United States and Captain Majed in Arab countries.

“Everybody loved it,” said Aki Tsuda of the Foreign Ministry’s aid department.

Some have even suggested that Captain Majed was the reason the Japanese trucks weren’t attacked during the2 1/2-year mission there, although the general area of deployment itself was relatively violence-free.

“Cultural diplomacy could be one of most effective tools of Japanese diplomacy,” said Hiro Katsumata, a research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore.

“In a decade or two, younger generations in many countries who love Japanese cartoons will start to fill leadership roles,” he said. “Japan can benefit from that.”

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