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Japan's Self-Defense Force: Taking Stock Now

Whether the helicopter crash was accidental or brought about by malice, the Self-Defense Force needs to determine the cause to prevent a future occurrence.



Members of the Japan Self-Defense Force search the waters off Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture, where the GSDF helicopter went missing. April 10. (©Kyodo)

On April 6, a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) Black Hawk helicopter apparently crashed into the sea near Miyakojima in Okinawa Prefecture. All ten people on board were presumed killed, making this the deadliest SDF accident since 1968. Eight GSDF soldiers were killed at that time, also in a helicopter accident.

The morale is to the physical as three is to one. 
—Napoleon Bonaparte

Mechanical failure appears to have been ruled out for the April 2023 crash, as the helicopter had undergone a safety inspection in late March. Also ruled out — perhaps too quickly — by unnamed Japan Ministry of Defense officials was the possibility that the helicopter had been attacked by a non-lethal weapon. 

The People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) aircraft carrier Shandong was reported off Okinawa Prefecture around the time of the crash. In fact, several PLAN ships were observed in the Miyako Strait before the accident. 

Whether the helicopter crash was accidental or brought about by malice, the SDF needs to determine the cause to prevent a future occurrence. After all, the first and last line of Japan's military defense is the Self-Defense Force. And civilian and military leadership must ensure that the SDF is ready to fight ー and win.

Kishida talks to media on April 17 about the missing SDF helicopter

Is Japan Ready to Fight?

To the theory that the April helicopter crash was due to mechanical failure, it is true that the GSDF has had its share of equipment problems. The larger and more pressing concern, of course, is, 'How ready is the rest of the SDF?' If recent history is any indication, there is cause for serious concern.

For example, in January of 2023, the Maritime SDF (MSDF) destroyer Inazuma was disabled after hitting a rock in the Seto Inland Sea. Maritime SDF Chief of Staff Admiral Ryo Sakai publicly expressed his apologies and stated that there had been no mechanical failure. Instead, Admiral Sakai said, the accident was likely due to the "operational side"— that is, due to someone's carelessness. What the MSDF did, if anything, to correct the lapse on the "operational side" has yet to be reported. 

The helmet of a member of the Ground Self-Defense Force from the missing helicopter was found off the coast of Irabu Island, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 9. (Provided by the Ground Self-Defense Force)

Other Serious Incidents

Another MSDF captain, Takashi Inoue, was dismissed in 2022 for passing state secrets to a former superior, a retired MSDF "vice admiral in command of the MSDF."  

Also in 2022, an Air SDF (ASDF) F-15DJ Eagle jet fighter, on a routine training mission, crashed in the Sea of Japan, with the loss of two crew members. While the cause of the crash has yet to be disclosed, this jet series has been in service in Japan for over forty years. Most of the jets in the ASDF are F-15DJs. 

Rather than replace these aging aircraft, the Ministry of Defense plans a series of retrofits to keep them in the air. It's a stopgap measure, but how well will it work, and how long will it last?

The ASDF has however begun to supplement its fleet with the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. Each of these aircraft costs Japanese taxpayers about $130 million USD.  

In 2019, during a training mission, an F-35 and its pilot were lost in the Pacific, east of Misawa Air Base. The Ministry of Defense stated that the cause of the crash was "pilot vertigo." The Ministry of Defense ordered the F-35 grounded as pilots received additional training. 

Members of the Self-Defense Force are searching for the missing helicopter near Miyakojima, Okinawa on April 7, 2023 (©Kyodo)

The Battle Begins with Recruitment

While there is now greater support among the Japanese government for increased defense spending, this does not appear to translate into increased SDF enlistment. The SDF has not been able to meet recruitment goals for the past nine years

The newest and most advanced military equipment is merely expensive junk if there is no one trained to use or service it.


Further, without a proper level of personnel, those in service now will have to do more, increasing fatigue and stress — and the likelihood of accidents. One can imagine even more fatigue and stress placed on personnel during sustained combat operations. 

Moreover, the SDF's recruitment problems would not appear to allow for quick or easy fixes. Given Japan's future demographics, recruitment will likely be more difficult with fewer young healthy adults. 

Current antipathy towards military service among Japanese people, especially the young, is also a hurdle. There does not appear to be a robust willingness for Japanese citizens to defend their own country, compared to other countries, such as China and South Korea.  

Finally, military service as a career is not as attractive as private sector work or even civilian government positions. Even those who do enlist in the SDF are often not persuaded to stay once their terms of service are up. All the training and knowledge that they received goes out the door with them.

Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine rescue ship Chihaya' (top) and minesweeper `Shishijima' participate in the search for the missing GSDF helicopter off Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture. April 11, 2023. (©Kyodo)

Leaders Must Lead

The Kishida Administration will double defense spending. Perhaps some of the money will go into training and financial incentives for enlisting and retention. But will SDF personnel be able to pull the trigger on their new weapons against an aggressor attacking Japan? 

For what exactly are all-volunteer SDF personnel fighting? Will they fight for their nation, their families, and their ancient culture? Or will they fight for Western liberal democracy and all that entails? 

Given the lack of clear vision and goals, leadership is more important for the SDF than ever before. And yet, military and civilian SDF leaders are not very inspiring role models.  

In 2021, newly appointed SDF Chief of Staff General Yoshihide Yoshida said that the SDF would not "unsheathe the sword." General Yoshida stated that "Taking swords out means the operation has already half-failed." 

Telegraphing to potential adversaries his intentions well in advance suggests that General Yoshida has not studied the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: "The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent."  

North Korea, by contrast, has unsheathed its sword numerous times. When push comes to shove, will General Yoshida not go to battle even with an enemy such as this?

Floating objects believed to be window frames from the missing SDF helicopter were found in the waters around Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 6. (Pprovided by the Japan Coast Guard)

Morale, Integrity, and the Mood of the Rank and File

While only recently appointed Chief of Staff, it appears that General Yoshida has yet to get a firm grip on his command. In 2022, General Yoshida apologized to a former soldier, Private First Class Rina Gonoi, who resigned that year because of sexual harassment by her male comrades. While the soldiers directly responsible were eventually dismissed, their superiors received a slap on the wrist

Some reports note that sexual harassment in the SDF is "common," and that "many" women have quit the SDF because of this. In Gonoi's case, she was harassed in the field during training by drunk male soldiers. 


The fact that Gonoi was harassed is deplorable, but the fact that her attackers were drunk, in the field, is inexcusable. Training and discipline are iron-fast essentials of any fighting force. On that score, how does the SDF stand?

The lower ranks do notice what their leaders do. One wonders what to think when Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, announcing the Black Hawk accident in April, was "apparently struggling to hold back tears." Rather than the current set of career politicians, who lack military experience, the SDF needs leaders with steel backbones. The troops, and the Japanese people, deserve excellence, and not tear-soaked apologies. 

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Japan's US Counterparts Have Experience

Hamada's counterpart, American Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, has military experience. Secretary Austin probably never openly struggled "to hold back tears" during his tour of duties in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Secretary Austin was not likely "struggling to hold back tears" when Kabul (and several billions of dollars of US military hardware) was captured by the Taliban in August of 2021. Nor when thirteen US service members were killed in a terrorist attack near the Kabul Airport on August 26, 2021. 

How will SDF leaders respond when Japanese soldiers and sailors are killed in action? Who will display the courage to lead and fight?

A lifeboat with "JGSDF" written on it was found and recovered by a patrol vessel of the Japan Coast Guard. (Courtesy of Japan Coast Guard)

It's About Recognition and Accountability

There have been many suggestions about how to operationally fix the SDF. While operations are important, there are more fundamental issues that need to be addressed, such as the true status of the SDF. 

The Self-Defense Forces are the military arm of the state of Japan.  

And yet, the Constitution of Japan doesn't even acknowledge the SDF's existence. For many in Japan, the SDF is allowed only on a marginal technicality; a disaster relief organization. 

What's more, for many more, the SDF is unconstitutional. Will the public rally behind the SDF in wartime if Japan's constitution is, at best, indifferent to those risking their lives to protect their fellow citizens?

Above all, people in authority need to be held accountable. It was a horrible day when ten SDF soldiers died on April 6. 

One should remember that these men ー all members of the SDF ー volunteered for their service. They did so, furthermore, on the understanding that they may have to perform the ultimate sacrifice for Japan. 

Those in authority must honor this commitment with actions. They should do whatever is necessary to ensure that the members of the Self-Defense Force are able to fight. And that they have the will and support needed to do so.


Author: Dr Aldric Hama

Find other reports and analyses by Dr Hama on JAPAN Forward.


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