(Originally posted to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Tue, 19 Mar 1996)

Fukuzawa has had a very interesting discussion about whether or not the Japanese Constitution's Article 9 (re the lack of a military force in Japan) should be revised to reflect the reality of the Self Defense Forces. However, one viewpoint has been overlooked completely (probably from lack of evidence) even though it would be the most affected by a change in Article 9 --that of the SDF themselves. I would like offer something akin to evidence. While it may be difficult to discern the true intent behind an organization (nominally) entrusted with a nation's security, last Friday I had an experience which told me what role the SDF feels it is filling and should fill in modern Japan.

It all started when I went to the Chitose SDF Base to judge a speech contest...



The abruptness of my invitation to this event was jarring; I was called up on Thursday night right after I got home from work, and was asked if I could take over for the only non-Japanese judge who suddenly had a schedule conflict. I said sure without really knowing what I was getting into (which is usually the fount of most of my adventures here). I came into university the very next morning and found two JASDF career officers waiting, all spit-and-polish in their blue uniforms, to drive me in a SDF car whose interior was right out of the early scenes of Paul Schrader's MISHIMA. They had in fact come to school a whole 30 minutes early, and two of our higher-up university administrators came out of the woodwork to talk over old times--they themselves had over thirty years accumulated tenure in the SDF! Talk about amakudari...

The Chitose JASDF base area was much like anything you would see in Hickham in Hawaii or NAS Miramar in San Diego. Fences, scrapped equipment made into sculpture, and the dichotomy of wide spaces inside juxtaposed with cramped zoning outside. Even the jets put in an appearance--buzzing around in the same TOP-GUN style that UCSD grads are used to. Airy American-style parade grounds and postwar buildings were there care of SCAP, while more recent buildings had that imposing high-roof and squared-the-circle neatness one finds in Asian military establishments. I was chauffeured to the door, whisked in like a foreign dignitary, and sat down next to the superior officer in a room full of brass to be briefed on my mission here.

All conversation was in Japanese, which surprised me; in my experience, being the token judge on a panel of Japanese judges of HS English, the profs with PhDs were too proud to waste their opportunity to chat with a native in their element. But once a couple of the junior officers got me in a one-on-one, I was told in English that everybody in the room felt they had enough ability to not bother showing it off. Each officer had spent at least three to six months training abroad with the Americans. Moreover, he said, English language ability is a factor in an SDF officer's promotion. I later talked to a major general in English, and it was excellent.

We marched into a room and assumed our panel positions. The speeches started, and seven NCOs (aged in their lower twenties) and eight officers (aged closer to thirty) in turn stood up with a "yes sir" (in English), bowed to the major general on their way to the podium, and softened their military composure to try and look like their vision of affable, relaxed Americans--gestures and all. And by and large, they succeeded.

The topics they chose were fascinating and the dichotomy between rank is worth noting. The NCOs basically talked about personal challenges and goals, and why they were proud to be in the SDF (the airplanes were attractive, they had had no direction in their lives, etc). The officers were much more concrete. One talked glowingly of the utopianism espoused by General Ishihara Kanji when trying to build Manchukuo during the war. Another talked incredibly ably about how and why Japan should ascend to the UN Security Council. The best speaker, who was practically native in his style (he had spent over a year overseas, receiving some American military qualifications), talked about the pride in his work and in his role as defender of his country--and how he was prepared to kill on command (said with much the same flippancy as my HS friends who had just surfaced from Marines' basic training).

Now, finally, the points of this missive:


It seems to be just the opposite, based upon my short exposure. English proficiency, I am told, has been an important part of SDF advancement for about 10 years (and we're not just talking about the air traffic controllers). The major general at the end of the event gave a rather rousing speech about how international connections and contributions were going to be even more necessary in Japan's future. This wasn't just the pat slogan with the garnish word of kokusaika. The way things were going, as far as they were concerned, they were going to part of the international arena sooner than later. And the incentive systems seemed to be working. The SDF were training English speakers far better than Monbushou.

Moreover, the SDF's contacts with overseas are far above the average Japanese's. Just about everybody I came into contact with had or was planning to do some time in America for joint exercises. Even if they didn't go to America, America would come to them--I was told that beigun came up to Chitose for practice for two weeks every year. Moreover, the US seemed a part and parcel of their daily life--their most important equipment (jets, etc) was made in the US or through license from Lockheed or McDonnell Douglas. Short of having Americans on the base in Chitose year-round, this is pretty close contact with another country's military. Genie in the bottle?


I doubt many pencils drop when you hear this (esp. if you are among the Koreans and Korean-studies people out there), since what military organization wouldn't mind receiving more authority from the civvies? But make no mistake--the SDF are not merely "domestic rescue forces" (such as the US National Guard) like some people would like to interpret them. They are soldiers and want to act as such. The majority of speakers indicated no temerity at all at being sent overseas on missions--even if it meant holding guns (Part of my job as a judge was to ask impromptu questions, and I asked some if they preferred an advisory or a participatory role in PKO operations. The answer clearly was that they wanted guns.) They weren't sure where they were going (I asked them that too), but they were raring to go.

Thus despite the recent reductions in SDF manpower, if Article 9 is altered to enpower the SDF to do more at home and abroad, the SDF certainly is not going to opposite it.


Now it's time for me to go out on a limb (as usual) with a far-reaching conclusion--again risking being privately called "immoral" and "demented" by some of the more sensitive DFS souls out there.

I have long thought of Japan as a highly-militarized society in its organization and expression. For example, Chalmers has talked about the business-is-war mentality in some of his writings (where J companies "hit the beaches" (jouriku suru) when they set up operations in other countries, etc.) Other examples: I have qualms about letting my children participate in grade schools' undoukai exercise fetes because I can't stand watching little children march. HS baseball games (and even the kokusai yuki gassen I participated in in February) have people practically goose-stepping in with their banners and offering Nazi-salutes towards the podium (watch in Atlanta this summer--the Japanese are nearly the only country whose athletes literally march into an Olympic stadium during the Games). HS and college graduations here are stiff affairs where people are barked at to "stand up" (kiritsu), "bow" (rei), and "sit down" (chakuseki) by a man with a mike in the corner. Company positions (e.g. Kachou and Buchou) are far more standardized in Japan than in the US; try translating "senior manager" into Japanese! Age seniority rules--the oldest people are nearly always at the top of any organization (or political cabinet) with a history and therefore traditions to follow. The very organization of society itself, be it its companies, its schools, or its social circles, has basically just about any human interaction organized into "superior-subordinate" and "kouhai-senpai" levels--making the chain of command pretty clear at every stage in the game.

Granted, I know very little about any military but what I see in the movies--my experience is limited to the watered-down versions in Boys State and as an Eagle in the Boy Scouts. Still, to me the overall style in Japanese interpersonal relations of always deciding who is superior to the other has a distinctly military feel to it. Deny it if you like, but your common sense will nag at you as it does me.

Which is why, ironically, I felt surprisingly comfortable amongst the SDF. They were military in form and function and not pretending to be anything else. Their purpose was to defend the country and, unlike in most humming-and-hawing Japanese companies, their mission and role was probably made clear from day one. None of this "unclear role as a freshman in the company answering phones and fulfilling quotas just because I'll get in trouble if I don't". These people had been mentally trained to be aware of their place in the system--be it mechanic, pilot, or strategist--and seemed quite suffused with a sense of purpose.

I can respect that in ways I never anticipated. I have lived long enough with Japanese people who have had no real sense of purpose in their lives--put in their time at work, marry, procreate, and let the wife handle the money and their education. Just work, hunker down, and stay out of trouble, because the path of least resistance probably means promotion on seniority anyway. But plans for the future? Buy a house, cultivate a hobby, tend the garden, retire, and die.

But getting involved in causes? Promoting a greater social good? Doing volunteer work such as helping the handicapped or victims of a natural disaster? In general, its nowhere near the levels in the US. Tarou Sarariiman thinks: it's not my role in society, and I've no time for that. I didn't have time for candy-striping or Scouts when I was in high school because I was in juku. In college I had a window of a year or two but didn't have the money. When I started work nothing else mattered but fitting into the company. Then my course in life was charted until retirement. Do something unpredictable? Better not--only the iconoclasts take any risks and my wife wouldn't appreciate an iconoclast. So what about charity? Maybe after retirement. Meanwhile, I'll throw in a few yen from my spare change in the Seven-Eleven charity box and let the bureaucrats handle the larger issues. Messing in things that could actually change society or shift the course of Japan might only get me and my family in trouble.

Thus the spirit of volunteerism and following causes withers on the vine. This is, in my experience, the typical salaryman's view of the world around him. Do your work and take care of your family, and let others take care of themselves. Your role is prescribed from above and it is risk-averse and apolitical.

But these SDF people, as a nonconscripted force, had that rare glow within of dedication, duty, and pride of purpose that I've seen in few cases in Japan--say, the Kobe earthquake volunteers. It was refreshing--neither they nor I seemed to imagine life without dedication to a cause.


This whole experience may be meaningless or it may be a rare glimpse into an organization with designs of changing Japan's role in the world. Still, like it or not, the SDF to me feel like they want to be a powerful force in Japan's future, fortified by the already-present military undercurrents in Japanese society, and will be pushing for more with a unusual degree of self-confidence. Changing Article 9 will probably provide the SDF with a clear window to extend their mandate. Whether that is good news or not depends on your political agenda.

Dave Aldwinckle


(Edited Response received from a friend in the know on this topic on Fri, 5 Apr 96)

Thanks much for your excellent missive. I agree with pretty much all of what you wrote (with one exception) and envy your talent to distil and express it far better than I ever could.

First, the exception. My experience, as one who has judged military English Contests for the past two years in a row, and been the Coach of the English Speech Team (the top two from Officer and enlisted categories, who go on to the all-JASDF speech contest sometime later) for the past three years, my impression is that the general English level is terrible. Some of the speakers can memorize their lines and even put on a pretty good, almost-American accent on the podium. But, even allowing a little author's licence to make your (good) points, I can't believe that the officer-level contestants even understood your questions, much less were able actually to spit out a coherent response. In my nearly 5 years in Japan I have judged close to 40, I'd guess, speech contests (your tax dollars at work) including the most prestigious (The Yomuri/Prince Takamado event in Tokyo, attended by the prince himself). Speech contests -- whether they be in high school, college, or the SDF, are like karaoke. They can sing when the laser disc is playing and the words are projected on the screen but you really don't want to here them improvise.

That aside, it is clear from my at least monthly contact with SDF brass and brass-polishers, that they all feel acutely that they are misunderstood by the Japanese public. I, too, have sometimes been taken aback by some of the speech themes. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the end of the Big One and there were several talks on the theme of why the JDSF has now proven itself capable of bigger and better things, but that the "misunderstood" Article 9 and public "misunderstanding" of the nature of the SDF was frustrating them. (I was spared paeans to the glories of colonization in China, though.) I am always very careful of course when I talk with SDF people about such matters since I do not wish to be misunderstood myself an implying criticism of their political leaders, but sometimes it's hard not to be sympathetic.

Despite my remarks above about English ability, I have almost uniformly found the base commander level of the SDF to be very impressive, both in terms of professionalism and English ability. It seems an unwritten but clear rule that one must have U.S. training/experience to advance to the top. Yoshida at Chitose is a case in point. Perhaps you learned he even taught at Colorado Springs. The top Admiral in the North, Vice ADM Gomi in Ohminato, studied at the Naval War College in Newport. Ohkoshi, the Commander of the GSDF Northern Army, struggles with English, but speaks fluent Korean, of all things (he was Military Attache in the Japanese Embassy in Seoul). Ohkoshi, though, visited Rwanda a few years ago when some of his troops were involved in the PKO there, returned to Japan, and held a press conference at which he criticized the SDF's lack on English ability and urged his boys and girls to "be ambitious" in studying ENglish, in preparation for "a greater international role".

Well, I've gone on too long. Thanks again for another stimulating and sparklingly-written piece.