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The Japanese Military Is Getting Offensively Cute

Cute aspects of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's effort to expand the role of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces could have the effect of rehabilitating Japanese militarism.
Photo via Flickr

Earlier this month, Japan's Ministry of Defense rolled out a nearly 20-minute-long cartoon as part of a public relations offensive to explain the country's military to the public. Although it might seem odd, it makes sense when you consider the fact that Japanese military is in a unique position in the world: the country isn't actually allowed to even have a military.

What Japan has instead is the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). While possessing all the trappings of a military, including a powerful air force and a respectable navy, the JSDF is constitutionally barred from operating on foreign soil, and is technically considered a constabulary.


Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which was drafted by victorious Americans after World War II, explicitly renounces war and the use of military force — or even the threat of force — "forever." But in 1950, only three years after the constitution was enacted, the withdrawal of American troops from Japan to fight in the Korean War left the island nation without a means of defending itself from foreign invasion, so a hastily assembled National Police Reserve was put together with surplus US Army equipment. By 1954, the police reserve had evolved into the JSDF.

While Article 9 forbids military force, it was taken to grant Japan the right of self-defense at home, but not without controversy. With the very existence of the JSDF considered unconstitutional by some Japanese political parties, it has proved impossible over the years for leaders who support the JSDF to muster the two-thirds majority in Japan's legislature to amend the constitution to remove limitations on the defense forces.

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This has been a focus of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party. Last July, his government further re-interpreted Article 9 to provide for "collective self-defense" and permit its forces to aid allies who are under attack in situations that threaten Japan's welfare. Opposition critics assailed the gambit as circumventing democracy. Responding to such pressure, Abe recently even pledged that he would not use the word "military" to refer to Japan's self-defense forces.


But as domestic political forces inside Japan are working to forestall an expansion of the JSDF, the regional security environment continues to worsen. China is rapidly growing its military and asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea, while perennially erratic North Korea has long been pursuing a nuclear missile program. How, then, can Japan justify increasing its military in response to these threats, both in its capabilities and in what it's allowed to do?

One approach that the JSDF has tried recently is to get cute about it. Literally.

Which brings us to the cartoon released by the Ministry of Defense. The cartoon stars a talking bird named Bo-Emon who explains the purpose of the JSDF to three young children whose father flies an F-15 fighter jet for the Air Self-Defense Force. The bird explains that the JSDF is meant to deter aggression and provide for global stability, rather than invade other nations. The cartoon ends with a scene of the father scrambling in his F-15 to intercept two unmarked aircraft that bear an unmistakable resemblance to the Su-35, an advanced Russian-made interceptor that China is keen to purchase.

Now the JSDF is upping the ante on its cartoons by attempting to embracemoe, a style that (usually) features cute female characters and is popular in Japanese cartoons and comic books. The JSDF's use of moe came to attention in 2011 when the Fourth Anti-Tank Helicopter Squad painted one of its AH-1S Cobra attack helicopters with the image of a moe style girl they named Aoi-chan. By the next year, Aoi-chan had three sisters, each with her own attack helicopter. The sisters proved to be a local sensation, to the point that female members of the squad would dress up as the girls for air shows and other PR events.


The sisters were eventually retired in 2013 — apparently someone at HQ decided this was getting out of hand and told them to knock it off. Nonetheless, the idea seems to have taken hold elsewhere within the JSDF, especially among recruiters. The JSDF's Tokushima Regional Cooperation Headquarters, for example, has put out a moe recruitment poster every year since 2010. The Okayama Provincial Recruitment Center reported a 20 percent increase in volunteers in 2013 after debuting their three cute mascots. Other regional headquarters have done the same across Japan.

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Popular media reflects how a society feels about itself and its military. John Wayne'sThe Green Beretsgives an idea of what the US thought it was getting in the Vietnam War. Films likePlatoonandFull Metal Jacketlater showed what Americans thought they actually got.

In Japan, the original 1954 Godzilla is often taken as a metaphor for the horror Japan felt at suffering the atomic bomb attacks that closed out World War II. It's telling that in Godzilla the military is useless, serving only to provoke the monster into greater acts of destruction. Instead, the day is saved by a scientist and an innocent child. By the 1970s, the message was evolving and getting more overt. The classic anime series Space Battleship Yamato involved a starship on a desperate mission to save the planet from a race of blond-haired aliens who use nuclear attacks to bomb Earth into submission. The world's dire situation mirrors that of Japan in the closing stages of World War II.


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Recent anime that features the Japanese military increasingly has a moe slant to it. The JSDF has been represented in anime and manga since the beginning, but the dichotomy of cute moe and the military is something unique to Japan. You see militaries around the world portrayed as cool, sexy, and dangerous, but a different approach is often seen in Japan. The details vary from show to show, but certain trends are easy to spot. Whether it's the mini-skirted girls with magical powers with World War II plane engines strapped to their legs fighting aliens in 2010's Strike Witches or the teenagers driving tanks as an after-school sport in 2012's Girl und Panzer, the underlying theme is the same. Military hardware is unthreatening, fun, and above all cute!

The 2015 release of the Kantai Collection series brings cuteness and war together in a fashion that's impressively revisionist. The show, widely known as KanColle, features "ship-girls" who are the reincarnations of Japanese warships sunk in World War II. This time, however, the Imperial Japanese Navy is allowed to win. The show's season finale (spoiler alert) concluded with the protagonists winning the Battle of Midway, the decisive naval battle that historically swung the tide of the war in the Pacific toward the Americans.

Abe has been criticized before for trying to rehabilitate Japan's war record and pushing to expand the bounds of what the JSDF is allowed to do. The roots of Japanese pacifism run deep owing to the painful lessons of World War II, however, and Abe hasn't had an easy time of it. But an organic interest in resurgent militarism would be a strong indicator that the rules are changing.

Discussions are underway to continue loosening limitations on JSDF activity. If Abe is able to capitalize on the way people are starting to see the military as cute, and therefore non-threatening, he might successfully move the narrative away from the history of Japanese aggression to one that presents its troops as pretty defenders of peace.

Follow Jonathan Gad on Twitter: @jng2058 Photo via Flickr