Fourth of a four part series.

The Japan Self Defense Forces are a lot like subatomic particles. Everyone knows they exist, or rather believes in the larger order of things that says they should exist, but few people can really tell you what they’re really like. The SDF keeps a low profile, in large part due to the anti-military and anti-war attitude built into modern Japanese society. For outsiders the best way to gauge the SDF is often through its interaction with the armed forces of other countries.

There was really only one question I had for Colonel Michael Hudson, the 11th MEU commander, and I thought I’d blown my chance when I missed the morning media interview with him. Fortunately, he was not only at the exercise, but actually came over to introduce himself. We chatted for several minutes, and I seized the opportunity.

“Say,” I asked the colonel, lowering my voice and jerking my head in the direction of the GSDF men. “Off the record, how good are these guys?”

*  *  *

It’s a tough question, but a fair one. As China rises and grows belligerent, that question is on the minds of people throughout the Pacific region. As China’s neighbor and theoretical rival in the Pacific, an effective Japanese military would go a long way to reassuring other Pacific nations that China could, if necessary, be put in check. An ineffective Japanese military means more work for everyone else.

The armed forces of Japan have not fired a shot in anger since August 1945*. The SDF has been, for most of the Cold War, a garrison army often used to perform tasks in the civilian world such as aid in disaster relief and recovery. In public their military role is minimized and their role as a “peace organization” — whatever that means — is emphasized.

There’s no doubt that the SDF is well equipped — it’s probably the best equipped, man for man, military in Asia. It is, as one Marine mentioned, a military technologically on par with the United States, bringing it’s own high tech gadgets to exercises. It’s well educated, with a high percentage of college graduates. And it is highly trained. Theoretically, it has the makings of a highly effective military force.

But there’s a big “on the other hand”. SDF personnel are considered civil servants in Japan, not actual military personnel. They carve ice sculptures in Hokkaido, chase and fail to shoot deer from helicopters, and have a poor record of keeping military secrets. Their mascots, Prince Pickles and his lady friend Miss Parsley, are animated characters. Commercials for the MSDF feature sailors dancing and singing on the flight deck of a ship.

I’m a blogger, a part-time hobbyist journalist. It was the first time I’d ever asked someone something off the record.

“I’ll give you an on the record answer.”  Colonel Hudson quickly replied, “They’re a highly professional, highly trained military organization.” Hudson said. He went on to say that he had observed the Western Army Infantry Regiment operate at all levels. From staff on staff planning sessions involving both the WAIR and 11th MEU to field exercises, to patrol-level urban combat simulations in Camp Pendleton’s Infantry Immersion Trainer, he felt they were a fully capable force, as good as any.

The Colonel also stressed that while the WAIR might have come to Camp Pendleton to learn and practice amphibious warfare, the Japanese too were teaching the Marines the way they did things. “Our staff and their staff brief every morning side by side, with Powerpoint and go over tactical problems together. We did one the other day where we came up with one solution, they approached it their way and came up with two.”

The week before I had set out for San Diego, I had asked the Marine Corps public affairs officer if there was any chance I could attend any social events involving the Western Regiment. I wanted the opportunity to meet the men of the regiment in an informal setting, shoot the breeze, and practice what little Japanese I knew. The Japanese were going to be in sunny San Diego for almost an entire month, so that meant plenty of time for socializing, right? The PAO threw cold water on that one. “The schedules I’ve seen don’t leave too much free time. They definitely came to train.”


Thanks to Colonel Michael Hudson, C.O. 11th MEU, and Captain Roger Hollenbeck, 11th MEU PAO for the invitation to observe Iron Fist 2011 and their hospitality.

* The Japan Coast Guard did intercept and sink a suspected North Korean spy ship in 2001. Thanks to Corey Wallace for the reminder.


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 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch