Japan military hammered and war hasn’t even started

Japan can buy all the F35s and long-range and hypersonic missiles it wants. It can even boast of having cobbled together a couple “aircraft carriers.” But so what?

It’s not that hardware doesn’t matter. But until Tokyo pays more attention to the people actually serving in the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF), buying shiny expensive equipment matters little.

The JSDF has never fought an actual war, but it suffered a crushing defeat last year – missing recruitment targets by 50%.  The year before it was a 35% miss.  And for years it has had 20% shortfalls.  Thus, JSDF is something of an old, undermanned and overworked force.

The reasons – or, better said, the excuses – are: Japan’s shrinking population, competition from the private sector, and a series of personnel scandals. 

However, actual blame lies with Japan’s politicians, officials, academics and certain media outles that have spent the last six decades ignoring, underfunding, hamstringing, belittling and humiliating the JSDF.

When was the last time any prominent Japanese politician spoke directly to the public about the importance of the Japan Self Defense Force and the people serving in it – and then kept repeating the message?

Has there ever been the equivalent of a Top Gun movie for the JSDF?

Something has to change, or Japan might as well roll over when the Chinese come calling.

It is essential to make service in the JSDF a respected profession and an attractive career option for more young Japanese. Currently it is not those things — to the Japanese ruling elite’s lasting shame. The fact that JSDF personnel are still reluctant to wear uniforms in public says it all.

Not surprisingly, the Japan Self-Defense Force can’t attract enough recruits.

Admittedly, the JSDF could sell itself better. Recruiting offices tend to be inconspicuous and about as welcoming as a yakuza office. A little professional marketing would do nicely. But the Government of Japan must also give them something to sell.

A big part of the problem is that the terms of service are not very good.  Salaries are low and living conditions are borderline third-world for both single and married jieikan (members of the JSDF). Many families don’t use their air conditioners in the summer because they can’t afford to. And when JSDF members are transferred, they often end up paying out of pocket to move.

Pensions? There is nothing to brag about. If you applied a similar pension scheme in America, nobody would serve in the United States military.

Yet, few Japanese are aware of this because too few of them — especially at ruling-class levels — have ever met an enlisted jiekan.

While I was serving as the US Marine liaison officer to the Japanese Army, a middle-aged Japanese civilian asked me, “Where do they [jiekan]] come from?” I heard this often.

Self-Defense Force public esteem did improve after the 2011 Northeast Japan earthquake and tsunami. The JSDF — the Ground Self-Defense Force in particular — did most of the relief work during Operation Tomodachi, including saving lives, providing succor and taking on the awful task of recovering thousands of dead bodies, which they performed with stoic dignity.  

Their reward from a grateful nation? A pay cut, along with all other civil servants.

Jiekan are just civil servants, it was argued. Well, not quite.

Consider a submarine crewman tracking a PLA submarine in a deadly undersea cat-and-mouse game. This is not exactly comparable to the local ward office functionary who makes sure dog licenses are paid up.

Defending Japan and being perpared to die on fellow citizens’ behalf is simply an entirely different level of government service. It’s about time for the government and more Japanese citizens to recognize that.

Indeed, it’s a tribute to the innate quality of JSDF personnel that the Self-Defense Force is as capable as it is. After all, it has suffered decades of official inattention and lack of funding — not to mention sometimes outright disdain.

Invest in the people who make up the SDF

Here’s what the government needs to do:

  • Take the necessary steps so young Japanese — both male and female — view military service as an advantageous career choice that compares favorably with the private sector. In Japan that’s not as a tough a sell as one might imagine, given the tedious, low-paid grind of salaryman life. 
  • Make JSDF service well-paying, offer decent living conditions (no more dilapidated quarters) and look after military families.
  • Focus on professional development for service members — both while they’re in the service and afterward.  
  • Implement the equivalent of America’s GI Bill providing lifelong benefits, such as post-service education assistance, housing loans, healthcare and decent, secure pensions for long-serving personnel.

The lesson is that to attract good people from a broader candidate pool that otherwise will not consider joining the military, you must spend money and treat them well. It is not exactly rocket science, but it shows that the nation values military service.

To paraphrase retired USMC Lieutenant General Wallace “Chip” Gregson, former III Marine Expeditionary Force commander: Do all this and you create a path of advancement for everyone who joins, attracting the right type of people and rewarding them in a way that feeds back into society positively.

Get priorities right

Most bureaucrats, politicians, and others have been oblivious of the disaster on the JSDF personnel front.  Fancy wonder weapons and hardware are seen as more important.

Yet, well-cared-for and well-trained troops with high morale make for a better performing force. In fact, they are a prerequisite to an effective force. This should be common sense.

And Japan does have the cash. This is clear from the government’s willingness to spend billions on hardware – and its plans to double defense spending over the next four years or so.

Spend plenty of it on the jiekan.

Give JSDF some respect

And it’s not just money.  It is as important to talk up the JSDF and the people serving in it – and give them some respect.  This was, in fact, a big part of Ronald Reagan’s success in fixing the demoralized US military in the early 1980’s.

The government of Japan also ought to take the steps necessary to revise the Constitution to formally legitimize the JSDF. Beyond the attendant moral boost, there’s the simple decency of showing some appreciation for that tiny slice of Japan’s population that protects fellow citizens in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood in East Asia.

And one more thing: Japan’s military highlights the profound difference between Japan and the totalitarian People’s Republic of China.

A respected and properly-funded JSDF bolsters the notion of individual freedom, liberty and consensual rule as worth defending from a rapacious and resentful neighbor. And that’s what the JSDF is about.

While serving as a diplomat at the US embassy in Tokyo, I brushed elbows with Japan’s elite members of the political class and officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Trade and Industry and Ministry of Finance – intelligent people, by and large, even if sometimes dripping in arrogance.

But were they Japan’s best and brightest, as they anointed themselves?  No. I’ve lived 25 years in Japan, and out of all the Japanese I am most impressed with the jiekan.

So, give the JSDF some respect and treat them better. In this way Japan will do more to protect itself than if it buys 1000 F35’s and the entire US inventory of Tomahawk missiles.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Follow him on X @NewshamGrant.

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