Third of a four part series that will run through Friday.

This was my second opportunity to cover troops in the field, and my first ever with the GSDF. How to divide my attention? Should I talk to the Americans, who were approachable and from whom information flowed freely? The Japanese, who were more difficult to talk to, but who were precisely the people I came to see? Other members of the press, Japanese and American? Do I shoot video or just start writing stuff down? I tried to do all three in the limited time that I had, and got a little bit of everything.

My “limited time” was supposed to be two days, but I ended up with an afternoon.

*  *  *

The original invite from the US Marines was to observe the exercises for two days. The first day was supposed to involve securing a beachhead, the second involving pushing off the beach. I was also told that the Japanese were uncomfortable with having the press at many of the exercises. At the last minute, I got word that the schedule had changed and that my access was down to one day.

The GSDF personnel were very nice, but my sense was that they were uncomfortable with the press. It was obvious to me that they were unfamiliar with having reporters and cameramen running around unsupervised, poking their noses into army business. The body language and the cultural cues were something I picked up on right away. It was pretty clear that, were it not for the US Marines (who were actually enthusiastic about having press coverage) I and the other members of the press would not be there at all.

I didn’t think it was a coincidence that the scope of my coverage Iron Fist exercise was all going in one direction, and that was the direction the Japanese probably wanted it to go. From two days to one, and the exercise had been changed from observing a beach invasion to watching a hill chock full of Japanese troops a half a kilometer away — where they couldn’t be photographed and interviewed.

I thought of this as the words of one GSDF officer echoed in my head. He’d been making a point about how Japan’s annual Defense White Paper was an example of how Japan was a transparent country, in comparison to China’s quiet, unpublicized military buildup. The major had a point — there was no equivalent document on the PLA/PLAAF/PLAN put out by Beijing. But I did feel like pointing out to him in return that there was Japan’s transparency, and then there was the transparency that allowed me to be there in the first place, and compared to that, Japan still had a long way to go.

If the Self Defense Forces have been at war with anyone over the past sixty years, it’s with domestic public opinion, an unending siege of anti-military sentiment against which a counterattack is not possible. As a result, the Self Defense Forces generally prefer to keep to themselves or heavily script their interaction with the public. Individual SDF personnel giving their opinions on issues related to their jobs is heavily discouraged. The idea of press running around asking privates questions must have made them deeply uneasy.

That having been said, the role of the SDF is changing, and that doesn’t just mean re-learning amphibious warfare. If the SDF intends to break out of its self-imposed hermitage and actually engage the public, it could learn a lot from the way the U.S. Military leads the way in media relations. There is no other way to change the Japanese public’s perception of the SDF. During my trip, the Marine colonel in charge of the MEU went around and personally spoke to all the media, and even sought me, the lowly blogger, out and gave me five minutes I didn’t even ask for. The lesson for the SDF: engage, don’t estrange*.

*With apologies to Dr. Craig Hooper.


Iron Fist 2011

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch