Shinzo Abe

Japanese military displays a softer side as Shinzo Abe seeks to boost its role

Schoolgirl cartoons, popularity contests and a well-known singer project a new military image as Shinzo Abe seeks wider role for armed forces

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 10:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 9:09am

Pacifist Japan is gradually learning to love its military, with an apparent public relations campaign under way to soften its image, featuring online popularity contests, a much-touted soprano vocalist and dating events.

The armed forces are also visible in youth culture, with young teens tuning into Girl und Panzer, a cartoon about schoolgirls who do battle in tanks. Japan's most popular Twitter hashtag last year was #KanColle, a reference to an online game in which anthropomorphised warships compete to out-pretty each other as young girls.

Watch: Japan military in popularity push

The image change comes as nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to give the Self Defence Forces (SDF) more money and scope to act as a normal military might, at a time of rising tensions with China.

The SDF has not fired a shot in battle since a battered and broken Japan surrendered in 1945, accepting a United States-led occupation that would last until 1952.

Its once huge armed forces were emasculated, stripped by the foreign-imposed constitution of the right to wage war and restricted to a self-defence role.

What arose in their place was an organisation that spent the intervening decades quietly becoming a highly professional and well-disciplined force.

Relief efforts in the aftermath of Japan's 2011 tsunami awakened the public to its modern-day military, and the sight of soldiers combing wrecked coastlines became a comfort for those whose loved ones had disappeared beneath the waves.

"People have begun to feel the same way about the military as they do about police or firefighters," said Yoshinori Saeki, secretary-general of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Stability.

On the frontline of nurturing friendly ties with citizens is Yukari Miyake, a 27-year-old petty officer third class dubbed the "sole vocalist" of the 230,000-strong SDF.

On the sidelines of a concert in Tokyo last year, Miyake said the public seemed to warm to her.

"There is great significance in the fact that I sing in uniform. Whenever I sing on stage for the audience, I feel dearly that I'm giving them inspiration and that they're more open about their feelings with someone in uniform," she said.

Those who came to the concert said musical and other cultural activities were contributing to softening the image of troops.

"As more and more people get to know these kind of activities, I think the image of SDF will change," said Nobuyuki Shikada, 43.

A campaign last year invited the public to vote for their favourite personnel in an online contest, complete with clips of a muscular serviceman stripped to the waist and doing pull-ups.

And a three-times-a-year, match-making event with ground, air and maritime officers drew a record 1,427 applications from single women last month, more than 10 for every available place.

The charm offensive comes as a confident Abe pushes to reconfigure Japan's role in the world, and specifically that of its armed forces.

A bigger obstacle to the project is public opinion at home.

Kirk Spitzer, a journalist specialising in military matters, says "the majority of Japanese still have a lot of qualms about having a real military service".

But he adds: "I do think that Japanese people are becoming a little bit more used to [the idea] than in previous years."

Saeki, a former lieutenant general in the ground force, says the military feels that it needs to be prepared for all scenarios.

Under the US-Japan security alliance "there has been an implicit assumption that the US is the pike and Japan the shield", he said.

"People's mindset is now changing ... We are undoubtedly in a new stage."