I started this post with the intention of highlighting what I thought the most important development in Japanese security had been over the past year but almost immediately hit a hurdle: so much has happened this year. Looking back through the archives here at JSW, the major topics included of course the shocking events of March 11th, the opening of the MSDF base in Djibouti, the decision to send peacekeeping troops to South Sudan, the death of Kim Jong-il, and the final selection of the F-X fighter, not to mention the increasing scrambles against Chinese aircraft, change in Defense Minister, the deterioration of the F-15s and the hacking of Japan’s defense contractors. That is a lot to choose from. The F-X decision leaves the chance of some serious trouble in the coming years should the F-35 fall further behind schedule, the base in Djibouti is a significant step for the SDF in terms of ‘normalization’, and the death of Kim Jong-il raises the prospect of further missile tensions or the opportunity for a renewed push on the abduction issue.
For me, however, the increased positivity in the people’s perception of role of the SDF in Japanese society seems particularly important. Having been to Tohoku to see their work, having seen the signs of goodwill from the people there, as well reading of increased recruitment figures, it seems to me that this positive shift offers a chance for the SDF to receive appreciation that has been somewhat lacking in their history.
This is an organization where its workers have previously been unwilling to wear their uniforms off-base for fear of abuse. This is by no means unique to Japan – the British military banned the wearing of uniform off-base during the Provisional IRA’s mainland campaign, and although this has changed somewhat with their adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, they nonetheless sometimes face abuse from those whose security they seek to provide. However, more than the UK, however, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces seem hidden away: sure, we hear the jets overhead and the occasional sailor in dress uniform around the ports, even in combat dress around the training grounds, but for the most part they keep themselves to themselves and out of the public eye.
This is both a symptom and cause of the public-military divide, and one that was shook up by March 11th earthquake. Suddenly, the news was filled of not only images of their often heroic but dire duties, but also talking heads in uniform. People even commented on how unusual it was to see SDF personnel giving press conferences, a factor certainly picked up on by the public relations people of the Joint Task-Force in Tohoku. Add to that the increased road traffic of olive-drab trucks and jeeps and you have a significantly positive public presence being boosted by the stories of their duties in rebuilding the tsunami-hit infrastructure and communities, alongside their operations in the Fukushima Dai-Ichi exclusion zone.
Will it last? For one thing, I believe it will last a lot longer than any ‘Operation Tomodachi Effect’ towards the US, as recent polls suggest that any goodwill towards the US forces is highly conditional. Indeed, the gratitude towards the SDF is probably no less conditional, predicated on their role as a disaster-relief organization than as a military force. However, the responses to the earthquake and the typhoon that ripped through the Kii Peninsula in September have created increased interest in the SDF service among those eligible to join now, as well as among the children who will grow up with the memories of their aid. Assuming no serious scandals rip through the SDF, it is possible that these memories of their support will create a lasting good impression among not only the people in Tohoku, but those who volunteered, visited, or simply passed the convoys on the highway.
The SDF’s handling of this post-disaster praise has been very reserved, and this is a good thing. However, there is a need for the SDF to engage more deeply with society with greater public relations via the media (outside their favored newspapers, the Sankei and Asagumo), especially with new media (hey, it’s worth a try!), and perhaps also talking directly to the public about their work and better engaging with academia. Strengthening the bonds they have made with those they serve will aid the SDF in the future far better than another Prince Pickles book.
What do you think was the greatest development in the Japanese security environment over the past year? Let us know in the comments. Also, keep an eye out for the impressions of other JSW writers over the coming week.
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