While the government forges ahead to expand Japan’s spending and capabilities for national security, the Defense Ministry continues to struggle in bringing young people to the Self-Defense Forces.
The ministry is turning to pop culture trends and famous faces to attract the attention of young people and hopefully get them to join the SDF.
But its latest public relations campaigns have also been motivated by efforts to promote public understanding for larger defense budgets and a wider role of the SDF.
The public is largely in favor of the SDF’s activities for disaster-relief and peacekeeping operations.
However, the security strategy of the Kishida administration will give the SDF new capabilities, including striking enemy bases that are planning to attack Japan.
It remains to be seen how potential recruits respond to this apparent shift away from the SDF’s traditional “defense-only” posture.
On the evening of Nov. 18, the Defense Ministry kicked off the 56th Japan Self-Defense Forces Marching Festival at Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward.
Before the start of the two-day annual festival, a video shown on a screen featured female SDF members describing their jobs, the “rewarding aspects” of their activities and how they let off steam.
It was produced to publicize SDF activities and encourage young people to take interest in serving their country.
The video emphasized that female members can receive guidance from senior officers and take extended leaves to spend time with their families.
According to ministry sources, an increasing number of lawmakers and foreign ambassadors have been given invitation slots for the event.
But this year, more slots were allotted to guests solicited from the public at the prodding of Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada.
SDF bands performed the theme song of the “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” anime series, “Top Gun Anthem” from the U.S. franchise, “Sakura” (Cherry blossoms) by singer Naotaro Moriyama, and other tunes.
During a Nov. 17 rehearsal for the festival, a subgroup of popular boy band Exile appeared on stage unannounced to the delight of senior high school students and guardians invited to the event.
“We perform many songs aimed at young people because our target is young people who are eligible to join the SDF,” an SDF source said.
The Defense Ministry has stepped up its efforts to appeal to young people, including the use of social media accounts.
The ministry has appointed 26 celebrities as “Defense Ministry opinion leaders,” including alpinist Ken Noguchi, shogi player Yoshiharu Habu and “rakugo” comic storyteller Hayashiya Sanpei II.
It has also assisted in producing TV programs that introduce SDF activities and dramas featuring SDF members as the main characters.
Questions have persistently been raised on whether the SDF, established in 1954, conforms with the postwar pacifist Constitution, which prohibits Japan from maintaining land, sea and air forces.
SDF efforts have become widely known through the ministry’s strengthened publicity of SDF dispatches for disaster-relief operations and peace-keeping missions overseas.
A Cabinet Office survey showed that in recent years, 90 percent of the public have a favorable impression of the ministry and the SDF, and 70 percent are interested in issues surrounding the SDF and defense.
Despite that positive image, the SDF continues to suffer from chronic labor shortages.
Some ministry officials hope the reinforced public relations efforts will turn things around.
“It will be so good to see (the SDF) gaining greater understanding especially from young people,” Yoshihide Yoshida, chief of staff of the Ground SDF, has said.
The Defense Ministry for the first time designated the October-December quarter of 2022 as a “period of enhanced public relations” apparently to gain understanding for greater defense outlays as the government revised key security documents at the end of the year.
A source close to the SDF said the ministry was “grasping at any straw” to raise its profile.
It encouraged families of ministry officials to browse its social media accounts and spread information about the SDF through word of mouth during the three-month period.
The SDF recently held parades in Fukui, Aomori, Shimane and Nagasaki prefectures, featuring rifle-carrying troops and armored vehicles.
“One aspect of the parades is to lay the groundwork to increase defense outlays,” a ministry source said.
On Nov. 6, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called for strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities in his address at an international fleet review in Sagami Bay, which was live-streamed by the ministry.
A ministry official described Kishida’s remark as a blatant attempt to appeal to domestic audiences at an event where he should have emphasized collaboration among participating countries.
The Kishida administration has approved plans to increase defense spending over five years and enhance the SDF’s capabilities to protect the nation from attacks.
The ministry said it was taking every opportunity to promote understanding of the importance of debates and dialogue concerning national defense.
But the recent moves have failed to address the fundamental issue of the identity of the SDF, according to Yukihiro Ueno, a professor emeritus of socio-informatics at the Shizuoka University of Art and Culture.
“The Defense Ministry has been putting much effort into publicizing individual cases, such as promoting activities in disaster-stricken areas and calling for the necessity of missiles,” said Ueno, who is also a former head director of the Japan Society for Corporate Communication Studies.
“But the basic idea of what kind of an organization the ministry wants the SDF to be in the first place remains obscure,” he said.
In the Cabinet Office survey, 80 percent of respondents said they expect the SDF to serve in disaster relief operations, while 60 percent said they expect the SDF to ensure national security.
“The SDF has already become a public entity that earned enough understanding from the public,” Ueno said.
“The Defense Ministry is responsible for promoting its visions and explaining what it wants the SDF to be after expanding its size. It must show whether it wants to revise the Constitution to make the SDF more like the militaries of foreign nations or maintain how it is now.”
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