Tue, Apr 15, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Charm offensive

Japan’s military launches concerts and dating events to improve its public image

By Miwa Suzuki  /  Tokyo, AFP

Members of Japan’s Self-Defense Force’s honor guard prepare for a ceremony for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last Sept. 12. Pacifist Japan is gradually learning to love its military, with an apparent public relations campaign under way to soften its image.

Photo: Reuters

Pacifist Japan is gradually learning to love its military, with an apparent public relations campaign under way to soften its image, featuring online popularity contests, a much-touted soprano vocalist and dating events.

The armed forces are also visible in youth culture, with young teens tuning in to Girl und Panzer, a cartoon about schoolgirls who do battle in tanks.

Japan’s most popular Twitter hashtag last year was #KanColle, a reference to an online game in which anthropomorphized warships compete to out-pretty each other as young girls.

The image change comes as nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to give the Self Defense Forces (SDF) more money and scope to act as a normal military might, at a time of rising tensions with China.

The SDF has not fired a shot in battle since a battered and broken Japan surrendered in 1945, accepting a United States-led occupation that would last until 1952.

Its once-huge armed forces were emasculated, stripped by the foreign-imposed constitution of the right to wage war and restricted to a self-defense role.

What arose in their place was an organization that spent the intervening decades quietly becoming a highly-professional and well-disciplined force, one far removed from the army that wreaked havoc across Asia before and during World War II in the name of the emperor.

Relief efforts after Japan’s 2011 tsunami awakened the public to its modern-day military, and the sight of soldiers combing wrecked coastlines became a comfort for those whose loved ones had disappeared beneath the waves.

“People have begun to feel the same way about the military as they do about police or firefighters,” said Yoshinori Saeki, secretary-general of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Stability.

REACHING OUT

On the frontline of nurturing friendly ties with citizens is Yukari Miyake, a 27-year-old petty officer third class dubbed the “sole vocalist” of the 230,000-strong SDF.

On the sidelines of a concert last year, Miyake said the public seemed to warm to her.

“There is great significance in the fact that I sing in uniform. Whenever I sing on stage for the audience, I feel dearly that I’m giving them inspiration and that they’re more open about their feelings with someone in uniform,” she told AFP.

Those who came to the concert said musical and other cultural activities were contributing to softening the image of troops.

“As more and more people get to know these kind of activities, I think the image of SDF will change,” said Nobuyuki Shikada, 43.

A campaign last year invited the public to vote for their favorite personnel in an online contest, complete with clips of a muscular serviceman stripped to the waist and doing pull-ups.

And a three-times-a-year, match-making event with ground, air and maritime officers drew a record 1,427 applications from single women last month, more than 10 for every available place.

The charm offensive comes as a confident Abe pushes to reconfigure Japan’s role in the world, and specifically that of its armed forces.

He wants to reinterpret national law to allow Japanese troops to take up arms to defend an ally under attack, so-called collective self-defense.

Beijing has sought to paint Abe’s moves as a dangerous slide towards the militarism of last century. But most commentators agree China is off the mark and that Japan remains no threat to neighboring countries.

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