Japan can buy all the F35’s and Aegis Ashore missile defense systems it wants. It can even cobble together an “aircraft carrier” or two. And 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.
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 — 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 — and that won’t get easier as the country’s population shrinks.
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 will do nicely. But the Government of Japan (GOJ) 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 it. And when JSDF members are transferred, they often end up paying out of pocket to move.
Pensions? There is nothing to brag about on that front either. 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 a jieikan, particularly JSDF-enlisted members.
While I was serving as the U.S. Marine Liaison Officer to the Japanese Army, a middle-aged Japanese civilian asked me, “Where do they (jieikan) come from?” I heard this often.
Self-Defense Force public esteem did improve after the 2011 Northeast Japan earthquake and tsunami. The JSDF — and the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) 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.
Jieikan 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 willing to die on fellow citizens’ behalf is simply an entirely different level of government service. It’s about time the government and more Japanese citizens 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 belittlement and sometimes outright disdain.
Invest In the People Who Make Up the SDF
Here’s what the GOJ 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 to 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 in the service and afterwards.
- 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.
Paraphrasing retired USMC Lt. Gen. Wallace “Chip” Gregson, former III MEF 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.
No More Excuses
Yet, critics and bureaucrats argue that this costs money, and that fancy weapons and hardware are more important. Indeed, personnel costs are often viewed as a drag on Japan’s defense capability. This is an ill-conceived perspective.
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.
Of course, Japan has the cash. This is clear from the government’s willingness to spend billions on hardware. Or, the government could just divert funds allocated for a couple of unnecessary public works projects.
Change the Constitution
The Government of Japan also ought to take the steps necessary to revise the Constitution to formally legitimize the JSDF. Beyond the attendant morale boost, there’s the simple decency of showing some respect 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 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 U.S. diplomat at the U.S. 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. They are nice, intelligent people by and large, even if sometimes dripping in arrogance.
But were they Japan’s “Best and Brightest,” as they anointed themselves? No. After 25 years in Japan, the Japanese I am most impressed with are the jieikan.
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.
Author: Grant Newsham