Not far from where I live is a kind of amusement park where you can play soldier. It has a lot of chain-link fences and gray structures that look like bombed-out buildings. On weekends, men, and sometimes women, dressed in camouflage and armed with replica air rifles, re-enact the kind of military operations they see in Hollywood movies. The facility has its own showers and locker rooms, as well as an area for post-combat barbecues. Large groups rent it out for full days.
Such recreational facilities are not exclusive to Japan, but it’s interesting to ponder the appeal of war games to a citizenry raised on the sanctity of pacifism. Lately, there has been much discussion about whether or not Japan should rewrite its Constitution, which renounces war-making capabilities, and become a “normal country” with a full-fledged military that can do all the things other normal countries’ militaries do, like go abroad and kill in the name of whatever cause it deems important.
The discussion has avoided hard specifics. It has even avoided essential vocabulary. Several weeks ago, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was forced to backpedal when he called Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) “our military,” and later opposition lawmaker Mizuho Fukushima was asked by the ruling party to retract a comment she made in the Diet about the government’s national security bills, because she called them “war legislation.” How can you debate such proposals if you have to tiptoe around their meaning?
When U.S. Sen. John McCain mentioned last week that Japan will be expected to fight alongside its allies overseas after these changes are made, the Japanese press barely covered it. Since it isn’t OK for Japanese politicians to talk about the subject in such blunt terms, reporters may have been stumped for a way to address McCain’s remarks. The media use arcane words and convoluted syntax to avoid saying the obvious when they talk about the security bills. As a result the average person has a vague idea of what’s at stake. In a rare, far-ranging interview that appeared in the April 21 Asahi Shimbun, a former Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) officer, Naoto Hayashi, expressed dismay at the Japanese public’s poor understanding of the SDF’s role, a situation created by the press, “including Asahi Shimbun,” he said. He derided the notion that the SDF could be used to rescue Japanese nationals kidnapped in a foreign land, a suggestion by Abe to gain support for the bills, and implied that since voters thought such a mission might be a good fit for the SDF, it only proves the public knows nothing about the SDF.
Hayashi and another former GSDF officer, Joshu Yamaguchi, clearly explain the difference between the SDF’s current functions, which they describe as similar to those of a police force, and the functions it would assume as a military force. These differences have to do with use of weapons, making decisions, apportionment of tasks and rules of engagement. Hayashi thinks that other national militaries may be reluctant to fight alongside the less-experienced Japanese forces.
“Troops that are seen to have weaker capabilities are targeted first by the enemy,” he says. In such cases, these allies “may ask us not to come in the first place.”
But another difference is the attitude of the SDF members themselves, all of whom, Hayashi points out, “were born after the war and grew up in a democracy.” He believes that those who join the SDF see its purpose as “defending Japanese people.” That’s why they are reluctant to move beyond the limitations imposed by the Constitution, even if, technically, the very existence of the SDF already violates Article 9.
A different series of interviews published in Tokyo Shimbun on April 8 gets closer to the issue, since the subjects are current members of the SDF speaking under condition of anonymity. One non-commissioned officer in the Marine Self-Defense Forces, still in his 20s, says that when he joined right after high school, he didn’t think about the possibility of going to war.
“I never read the newspaper,” he says, “and it was the same for other recruits.” He didn’t take the job seriously until he was given some responsibility. “Originally, my idea was to build up my body, save money, acquire a skill and quit.” Now that he is treated as an “asset,” he wants to stay longer, but he still has no interest in “politics.”
A GSDF captain in his 30s says that he, too, never thought about going to war. As a university graduate who took the officer’s test, his reasons for joining were different: “I wanted to learn about the world.”
If the SDF status is changed to that of a military force, he says, all members will have to undergo stricter combat training, and lower-level personnel will need to understand why. He isn’t sure if they are ready for the truth.
This sentiment is echoed by a “top officer” in the Air Self-Defense Forces, who “never imagined it would come to this,” meaning SDF personnel being sent abroad to fight. He regrets that the government “doesn’t educate (recruits) about the political background” of the push to militarize. His superiors understand that members may quit “en masse” when they find out that they could be shipped off to a war whose stakes have little to do with directly protecting the Japanese people. That’s why the Liberal Democratic Party wants to impose stricter rules. As it stands, any SDF member can quit at any time for any reason. Several years ago, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba talked about “reviving” the court-martial system and the once-dreaded kenpeitai (military police).
It’s a self-evident fact that democracy depends on an informed electorate, and what’s perplexing about these interviews is the sense that even the people most directly affected by the move to militarize don’t know what it entails. That’s as much the fault of the media as it is of the education system. Without such knowledge, all SDF members have to fall back on is Hollywood.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5