Japan military goes on charm offensive to soften image

TOKYO (AFP) - 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 in to "Girl und Panzer" a cartoon about schoolgirls who do battle in tanks. Japan's most popular Twitter hashtag in 2013 was #KanColle, a reference to an online game in which anthropomorphised warships compete to out-pretty each other as young girls.

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, one far removed from the army that wreaked havoc across Asia before and during World War II in the name of the emperor.

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 Mr Yoshinori Saeki, secretary-general of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Stability.

On the frontline of nurturing friendly ties with citizens is Ms 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, Ms 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 told AFP.

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 Mr Abe pushes to reconfigure Japan's role in the world, and specifically that of its armed forces. He wants to re-interpret national law to allow Japanese troops to take up arms to defend an ally under attack, so called collective self-defence.

Beijing has sought to paint Mr Abe's moves as a dangerous slide towards the militarism of last century.

Most commentators agree China is off the mark and Japan remains no threat to neighbouring countries.

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

Mr 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."

A tense stand-off over disputed islands in the East China Sea is greasing the wheels for Mr Abe, who has decreed the military budget for this financial year, which started April 1, is going up.

Mr 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."

Mr Spitzer said that even with the shifting international sands, the armed forces themselves seem unsure of where they fit in.

He pointed out the differences between Japan and the US, for example, where it is not uncommon to see military men and women.

In Japan, generals commute to their headquarters in civilian clothes and change into uniforms when they get there, he said.

It is an organisation that is "torn about what direction they want to go," he said.

"The Japanese military themselves are wondering if they should begin to become more of a military organisation than they have been in recent years."

Japan hopes that its military becomes respectable as a career choice to help with the recruitment of educated and dedicated soldiers, sailors and airmen - no mean feat in a rapidly-ageing society.

And it is perhaps this more than anything else, suggested Spitzer, that explains the PR campaign of musicians and popularity contests.

It helps to "create the idea that people in the military are normal people or everyday people - they are not some group of killers".

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