In the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake, following the urging of our very own Kyle Mizokami, I sat down and read through Prof. Sabine Frühstück’s ‘Uneasy Warriors: Gender, Memory, and Popular Culture in the Japanese Army’ (2007). The book provided me with the only English-language ethnographic study on Japan’s Self-Defense Forces I had ever read, and Frühstück’s conclusions supported my own research and second-hand information gathering.

The chapter detailing Frühstück’s first-hand research is the highlight of the book, in which Frühstück fought hard to open doors to allow access and build trust with (particularly Ground) Self-Defense Force personnel, but the whole work elucidated the identity crises within the SDF particularly in the context of the masculinities and feminine identities involved (if you’ve never come across Gender Studies, you are missing out on a truly fascinating area of post-modern academia).

I was struck most by the correlation between what I was seeing in Tohoku as the SDF fought their own battle for survival in their attempts to recover the missing, the stories being told particularly by the Ministry of Defense-tied media, and the use of women in counseling civilians, seemingly showing them to be uniquely capable of dealing with some parts of the disaster relief mission.

I contacted Prof. Frühstück regarding her work in light of the March 11th disaster, and she kindly responded – making her the first in an new series of JSW posts: “JSW Talks”.

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Sabine Frühstück is Professor of Modern Japanese Cultural Studies and Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. She holds a PhD from the University of Vienna. You can read more about her work at the UCSB’s East Asian Language and Cultural Studies site, here.

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FRÜHSTÜCK: Thank you for your interest in my perspective from afar. Please note that I have no more intimate insights into the actual activities of the SDF in Tohoku, post-earthquake than anybody who follows Japanese, and international media. So, my response is very much based on what I know about the SDF and particularly the Ground Self-Defense Forces.

"Everyone in the SDF: Thank you!"

"Everyone in the SDF: Thank you!" (Source: Jiji-bibouroku)

SIMPSON: The SDF’s disaster relief role was its first tri-service joint operation, and was its largest deployment. It has also seen an unprecedented amount of public exposure and received significant amounts of public support. What effect do you imagine it will have on its identity, which you described as rather troubled in your book? Do you think this will result in a stronger and more self-assured organization?

FRÜHSTÜCK: Yes. Most certainly, this experience will leave service members more self-assured. Having said that I think it’s important to be very clear about what that self-assurance is about. With every large mission in the past, particularly those with a lot of media exposure, the SDF has become more confident in the sense that they CAN accomplish what they set out to do and that WHAT they set out to do is of value, not only for themselves but also for Japanese society at large (very important!) and internationally (mostly important insofar as positive international press reassures Japanese society that indeed their service members do something good). As you might recall, in the public’s eye, the SDF did badly in response to the Hanshin Awaji earthquake in 1995. So, this is very much the moment to show that they have learned from that experience.

On a broader scale, I think it’s also important to see this disaster and the SDF’s response as the model for military missions in the future. We essentially know that we will have more and more such disasters the world over and it will be militaries who will serve as the organizations that do important relief work. Hence, this will strengthen the position of those within the SDF and the political elite who have long argued that the SDF should spend more effort and training time preparing for such disasters rather than warmaking of whatever sort. It should also undermine those who have claimed, advertised and or promoted the so-called remilitarization of Japan, a remilitarization that in these pundits’ utterances is always understood as an alignment with U.S. security interests.

It will be interesting to see what the SDF PR apparatus and the Japanese government will make of this…

The SDF's work has been far from glamorous, but the boost in public support is a good sign for the embattled troops

The SDF's work has been far from glamorous, but gave them a much-needed boost in public support (Source: Go Go Erie)

Something that might be beside your question but still fascinates me is how little concern there really is about the radiation and the pollution more generally that this disaster must have caused. I know people who always have a hand sanitizer ready as soon as they have touched a door knob and now those same people are up in Tohoku pretending that radiation is blown away (to where exactly, I wonder?) with the wind… As often, it strikes me that ignorance is another word for heroism here… And what’s with the Japanese government’s responsibility to inform its people of the risks!? The reason why I bring this up is that SDF service members have been massively exposed to radiation and other kinds of pollution. I wonder whether they will receive a military funeral if they die of radiation-related illnesses a few years down the line. Perhaps the SDF PR apparatus will even claim this as a new kind of heroism, a new way of “dying for your country.

By the same token, perhaps it makes sense to reiterate what the “uneasiness” I have described in UNEASY WARRIORS is about: The GSDF in particular find themselves caught in between performing missions other than war while being trained mostly for warmaking. Hence, one finds service members who are happy to have safe jobs, work mostly outside, and train and for and participate in missions other than war. Right next to them are others who are also happy continuing non-traditional missions but wish they had more legitimacy within Japanese society. And then there are those who wish they were they kind of military they imagine the U.S. armed forces to be. Because the U.S. military looms so large they can’t see that, for instance, most western and northern European militaries are much more like them. Furthermore, like Japan, those societies don’t any longer produce men who are willing to go to war for their countries… So, that’s where I see the “uneasiness” of SDF service members.

Regarding the increasing support for the SDF within Japan, I have analyzed 30 years of opinion polls and they show this: An increasing portion of the Japanese public think positively or at least not negatively about the SDF. BUT these are people who think the SDF does good work in missions such as Tohoku, i.e., disaster relief, community works, peacekeeping at the most. These are not people who want the SDF to involved themselves in war and thus this cannot be seen as a rise of old-style militarism. By the way, this is also true in Germany. People think much more highly of the military now than 20 years ago because so many young men choose “alternative service” in homes for the elderly, hospitals, etc. Hence, the public thinks they do good work and that it’s good for young men’s maturation and sense of social responsibility to be in the shoes of the usual service providers, i.e. underpaid women.

Female SDF service members have played a significant role in civilian relations following the Tohoku Earthquake

Female SDF service members have played a significant role in civilian relations following the Tohoku Earthquake (Source: MoD)

SIMPSON: One very prominent role of the female SDF service members has been in standing watch outside the female field baths made available to the populations affected by the tsunami. Is the role of counseling and engaging with the civilian population better suited to the SDF’s female service members?

FRÜHSTÜCK: While there are women among the highest ranks, including so-called combat positions, when they are actually employed in larger missions, domestically and abroad, they are usually employed for roles in line with traditional gender expectations. And even within those, it’s usually women of subordinate rank, i.e., nurses rather than female doctors, who are deployed. You only need to look into the disaster relief mission in Honduras in 1998 or any other large mission as well as the documentations thereof in the defense white paper. Women are almost exclusively used to do “womanly” things, origami and kamishibai with Iraqi children, nurses with Honduras families, etc. Obviously, there are several cliches and strategies at work here and I just list a few:

Women are overrepresented on SDF PR materials to soften the image in the eyes of the Japanese public.

The SDF assumes that domestic as well as international populations respond more warmly to female soldiers because the first association many of them have with a military uniform is not “helper” but “threat.”

Even though the SDF has made an effort to spread women across all service branches and specialities, there simply are more women among the nurses and communication branches than in others.

Younger women in particular are easier to deploy because they don’t have families to care for (this might be part of the reason why higher ranking women seem to be deployed to a lesser degree; for international missions, at least, service members can use “family responsibilities” as a reason why they don’t want to go; while such reasons are usually respected, such a decision tends to put a dent into one’s career)

So, in short, the SDF believe that the answer to your question is yes.

Are female servicemembers proving themselves to be "one of the boys"?

Are female servicemembers proving themselves to be "one of the boys"? (Source: MoD)

SIMPSON: The Iraq War blurred the lines between rear and frontline roles for women among the US military particularly. Does the disaster relief mission offer such a chance for the women of the SDF to prove themselves or even expand their roles in the services, particularly given the role disaster relief plays as a stand-in for combat in the tales of heroism told as part of identity-formation within the SDF?

FRÜHSTÜCK: Yes and no. It depends very much on how the SDF will play this. For instance, will females be shown in leadership positions in the media and the materials the SDF will produce as documentation/PR materials later on? It remains problematic for them to convey that what they do can be just as well done by female service members precisely because they appear as a somewhat lesser military in the eyes of the U.S. armed forces. This is ironic, of course, given that the U.S. armed forces have a higher percentage of female service members. In Japan it’s about 5%, in the U.S. about 15-20% and varies dramatically across different service branches.

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You can purchase Frühstück’s Uneasy Warriors over at Amazon, it’s a great read, and also you can check out some of her articles over at Japan Focus: “To Protect Japan’s Peace We Need Guns and Rockets:” The Military Uses of Popular Culture in Current-day Japan [an abridged excerpt of Chapter 4 from Uneasy Warriors, and AMPO in Crisis? US Military’s Manga Offers Upbeat Take on US-Japan Relations.

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch