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At anchor in the port of Ominato, the Japan Defence Ship Chikuma, an escort destroyer of the Abukuma class, looks every inch the warship prepared for action. Harpoon missile tubes and anti-submarine rockets bristle from its decks. A missile-destroying Phalanx Close-In weapon system sits at its stern.

Four more escort destroyers and three helicopter destroyers are based permanently at Ominato, plus support vessels, a squadron of Seahawk helicopters and around 2,500 personnel. The chilly-looking waters of the northern Pacific are calm enough, as the 110 men stand on parade beneath the Rising Sun flag. But the Chikuma and vessels like it in bases around Japan are prepared for anything that might occur in the region. They’re also part of the most muscular sea force in Asia.

What could happen in Japan’s neighbourhood isn’t difficult to conjure up. It might begin with a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, conflict between North and South Korea or the doomsday scenario: an attack on Japan by a North Korean nuclear-armed Taepodong missile.

Japan may be the world’s most peaceful and crime-free society, but plenty of Japanese are sleeping badly amid these nightmares. East Asia is as unpredictable as ever; perched on its outer edge, Japan feels the need for protection. This comes in the form of an army – 148,000 soldiers with 1,000 tanks and the same number of armoured vehicles; an air force of 46,000 with its 373 combat aircraft, and 44,000 sailors in 151 warships, including 16 submarines and 53 destroyers.

Japan has one of the biggest, richest and best-equipped military forces in the world – last year the government spent ¥4.8 trillion (€34bn) on its 240,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, an annual budget exceeded only by the United States and China. And yet, for 60 years, it has been almost invisible to the people it exists to defend.

Outside their bases, Japanese servicemen are almost never seen in their uniforms. They are not allowed to call themselves soldiers, sailors and airmen, and some argue that even having an armed force is unconstitutional and illegal. Strictly speaking, they are civil servants working under a civilian leadership. In fact, use of the word “military” is discouraged. Japan doesn’t officially have an army, navy and air force like the rest of the world; instead it has the Ground, Air and Maritime Self-Defence Forces (SDFs), the most paradoxical and least-known military machine in the world.

JDS Chikuma is part of a navy that does not exist, whose very existence was a source of shame for many post-war Japanese, a reminder of the wartime Imperial army and navy which visited such suffering on East Asia, and brought catastrophe and defeat upon Japan itself.

And yet the SDF are undergoing what, in their own terms, is a revolution. For half a century, with the exception of a handful of participants in UN peacekeeping operations, and minesweeping in the Persian Gulf, a strict interpretation of Japan’s constitution kept them confined to the country’s home islands. But since the attacks of September 11 2001 they have emerged from their historical shell.

Within two months of September 11, ships of the Maritime Self-Defence Forces had joined an armada attacking targets in Afghanistan – not to take an active part in the war, but to refuel the US and British ships as they launched their bombing raids. MSDF vessels carried out relief operations in Thailand and Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. Most nerve-racking of all, 500 Ground Self-Defence Force troops spent more than two years providing medical care and technical assistance in the southern Iraqi town of Samawah.

All these missions – major logistical operations completed without a shot fired – prompted anxious soul-searching and political debate within Japan; in all cases it was made clear that the SDF members were there in a humanitarian and support capacity and could not in any circumstances participate in combat.

But Japan’s military had become visible as never before – and the change has imparted a new pride in its men and women. “These days, most Japanese people have forgotten our naval history,” says Rear Admiral Masahiro Shibata, a 30-year veteran of the Maritime SDF. “We still carry all the history and the way of doing things – the routine and training – from the Imperial Navy. We’re very proud of our traditions.”

Two relics of Japanese naval history are on display at the museum at the Maritime Self-Defence Forces’ Officer Candidate School on the island of Etajima. They are large black iron cylinders with stubby fins. These are the notorious “human torpedoes”, miniature submarines loaded with explosives, that were guided into Allied shipping and detonated by underwater kamikazes: 370 young people died in these in the last crazed months of the Second World War.

Superficially, there are plenty of continuities between the Imperial Navy and the Maritime SDF. The school on Etajima, an island of the Inland Sea, and a boat ride from the city of Hiroshima, used to be the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy. In a country repeatedly flattened by earthquakes and war, the centrepiece of the school is impressive: a newly restored 19th-century brick building whose wooden floorboards come from a destroyer which made it through the 1905 Russo-Japanese war.

Photographs of the old Academy hang on the walls and cadets are encouraged at the end of each day to recite the “Five Reflections” of the Imperial Naval Academy. Even the uniforms are still made by Miyaji, the naval supplier which began tailoring for the Imperial Navy in 1892 (its sprightly 81-year-old proprietor, Akira Miyaji, the son of the man who founded the company, is still very much in charge). In winter the dress uniform is black – a golden cherry blossom on the sleeve marking out their maritime status – in summer, a dazzling white. The students wear blue workwear and baseball caps for everyday use.

The uniform is derived from the US Navy – the cherry blossom motif is almost identical to the US Navy star – but older officers like Shibata speak almost nostalgically (although they never wore it themselves) of the pips and stripes of the old Imperial Uniform, inspired by the British Royal Navy. Clearly, old emotional ties are still there. The British Ambassador planted an oak at Etajima to mark the centenary of the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance, and there’s even a lock of Nelson’s hair in the museum.

The training regime is as tough as you would expect in any military academy, if not tougher: the students are woken with a rousing trumpet blast at 06.30 (06.00 in summer); within minutes they’re in the chilly courtyard being put through their paces with star jumps and press-ups. Then comes a round of cleaning and bed-making, while those on rake duty busy themselves making perfectly straight lines in the gravel in front of the college. At 08.00 everyone gathers for the raising of the Japanese flag.

Judo or kendo are compulsory for all students and some put in extra rugby or football practice; the day ends as it begins with cleaning, followed by more study and lights out at 22.00. Then there are all the extras they have to fit in during their March-to-March year at the school: mountain running on the holy island of Miyajima, fire-fighting practice, marathon training, synchronised long-distance swimming around the bay and combat training in Hiroshima. It’s a rigorous routine, and yet the four cadets we met are as far from the tough military stereotype as could be imagined.

They have no objections to us nosing into every aspect of the school – Monocle gained special access through Prime Minister Abe’s office. We arrive in darkness ready to snap them as soon as they wake up; we photograph their cupboards, their immaculately folded bed linen, the caps hung politely outside the dining room; we watch them on their hands and knees scrubbing the corridors. We watch them undergo a surprise training exercise – an Imperial Navy drill – where six teams have each to launch a cutter, row around a marker in the bay and race to finish first.

The SDF is on a charm offensive, anxious to reassure the world – and, most importantly, the Japanese public – that a more active role in world affairs doesn’t mean a return to militarism.

Officer candidates Sanari Saito, Takushi Kino, Yoshitomo Itoya and their female comrade Mika Sato are an articulate, thoughtful group. They could hardly be more obliging when we meet. Japan’s future naval officers look and talk more like aid workers than trained killers. They speak of their pride in the sdf’s new international role in peace-keeping operations and disaster relief.

Sanari Saito speaks of his sickly childhood and how worried his mother had been that his health wouldn’t stand up under training. Takushi Kino studied international politics at Doshisha, one of Japan’s top private universities, and came close to joining the diplomatic service. “My parents were very surprised when I joined,” says Mika Sato. “My friends just thought I was joking. Not many people know what it is that I do here – it’s part of my job to explain our role.” She joined because she wanted to become a pilot; Saito was interested in diplomacy with an active edge. Yoshitomo Itoya had always dreamt of joining the SDF.

They’re certainly not in it for the money – a meagre ¥235,000 (€1,500) a month for a new officer – or the luxurious surroundings. They sleep four to a spartan room, without mobile phones, or possessions other than clothes and a few toiletries. The base has the requisite convenience store and a souvenir shop selling boxes of msdf coffee, tinned sponge cakes, fridge magnets and cotton cloths with a selection of maritime knots printed on them.

During their spare time the students leave the college to visit the sleepy town of Etajima or go further afield to the nearby city of Kure or Hiroshima – it is an unwritten rule that they always change out of their uniforms when they leave the school and back when they return.

One of the fascinating things about seeing TV footage of the Ground Self-Defence Force heading off to Iraq was just that – seeing the men in uniform (women are kept away from the front line). But even if the public doesn’t see the uniforms on its streets, they are increasingly seeing them on their screens. Miyaji supplied outfits for the lightweight TV drama Let’s Meet in a Dream, which featured a naval officer character. The stars of last year’s popular Japanese war film Battleship Yamato were also kitted out by Miyaji and sent to Etajima for a glimpse of military life.

“Officer recruitment has been more or less stable,” says Rear Admiral Shibata in his wood-panelled reception room, “but general recruitment goes up and down. Ten years ago when the economy was bad it was easier, but now things are better and we’re competing with the private sector.” At the moment, the numbers are slightly below their maximum level of 45,000. Over the years the sdf has mounted a series of what, to the Western eye, are unintentionally hilarious recruitment drives, featuring cute cartoon tanks, planes and ships. One msdf recruitment commercial – which features all-singing, all-dancing, hip-wiggling sailors on the deck of a ship – has become a hit on the web.

It’s impossible to imagine any of these modern-day sailors and polite cadets strapping themselves to a kamikaze torpedo. And yet, after 60 years of something close to embarrassment, the Japanese are rediscovering a sense of service and patriotism. “Once we take off we have to be ready to give up our lives,” says Koji Kaneshiro, the 37-year-old Commander of a unit of P-3C anti-submarine planes based far from Etajima in the northern city of Hachinohe. “In that sense I put importance on how we face life and death. Our unit is like a family. I think of it this way: I love my family, and that leads to love of my crew members, and Hachinohe, and that extends to the whole country. If I didn’t have a sense of patriotism, I couldn’t do the job.”

How did the SDF become such a complicated and contradictory institution? The answer lies in Japan’s American-drafted constitution, promulgated in 1947 when memories of the Imperial forces’ rampages through China, South-East Asia and the Pacific were fresh and raw. Article 9 – the so-called “Peace Article” – was intended to prevent such a situation ever occurring again. “The Japanese people,” it states, “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes… land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

That would have been that – except that, in the early 1950s, an unarmed Japan suddenly seemed a bad idea to the US. The Cold War was underway and Communism was on the march. The commander of the US occupation, General Douglas MacArthur, ordered the formation of a “National Police Reserve” which, in 1954, became the Self-Defence Forces. Under the US-Japan Security Alliance, Japan’s security is guaranteed by Washington, by the 37,000 US troops based in the country, and (this is rarely emphasised) by the US nuclear umbrella. The SDF, it is argued, does not violate the constitution because it has no other purpose than as a defensive back-stop for the formidable US military.

The changing and expanding role of the SDF causes alarm to Japan’s dwindling corps of left-wingers, and above all to its Asian neighbours and former wartime victims.

In October 2001 the parliament approved three new laws on terrorism, one of which allows Japan to support – in a non-combat role – US-led military responses to the September 11 attacks. Another law was passed two years later allowing SDF troops to go to Iraq, again in a non-combat role. Finally, this year, the Defence Agency was upgraded to Defence Ministry. Its role remains the same, but to SDF members it is a morale boost.

The defence budget will remain capped at 1 per cent of Gross National Product. Japan, the official version goes, will remain committed to pacifism but will participate in world affairs, strengthening its long-standing plea to be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. “Article 9 has been interpreted with typical Japanese vagueness,” says Captain Takaaki Iwata, vice-principal of the Etajima school. “But even if the constitution is changed, the spirit won’t be different.”

Few go as far as the bellicose propagandists of North Korea who have accused the Japanese of “whetting their swords” for a re-invasion. But, for many people in Asia, even 60 years on, the idea of Japanese troops at large in the world remains profoundly unsettling.

For the first 40 years of its existence, Ominato was at the sharp end of the SDF’s operations. It lies on the coast of the Shimokita peninsula, the axe-shaped tip of Japan’s main island, Honshu, a remote, bleak area dominated by the looming presence of Osorezan, a mysterious mountain said to be a gathering place for dead souls. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, this was one of the potential front lines in an East Asian war. Now it has become a cold, obscure town with a few coffee shops and izakaya restaurants, and a concentration of naval and air power.

The MSDF flag – the same image of the rays of the rising sun that was used by the Imperial Navy – flutters in the icy breeze. Behind the base, the ski slope on Mount Kamabuse is clearly visible. The ship is as cramped and well-organised as any naval vessel, but with distinctively Japanese touches. Nailed to a wall is a kamidana, a miniature Shinto shrine from the Chikuma Shrine from which the ship takes its name. The narrow galley serves tonkatsu pork cutlets and yakisoba fried noodles.

“I enjoy life on board ship,” says Lt Cdr Hasebe, “although I do miss having the occasional drink. We used to have sake on board but now we follow the Americans and they don’t drink.” No women either – the MSDF’s 1,900 women (out of a force of 44,000) are only ever present on training ships.

The Chikuma goes out on patrol for a week at a time, twice a month, usually just within Japan’s territorial waters. In between times the men are training and exercising – cross-country skiing being a winter favourite.

Seven SH-60 helicopters also patrol from the Ominato base, surveillance helicopters, heaving with torpedoes and machine guns. Unit Commander Kenji Takigawa and his Lieutenant Commander, Tetsuya Hayashi, keep their pilots up to speed with three weekly training sessions. “We don’t expect to be in a battlefield situation but the basis for training is the same for a PKO [peace-keeping operation],” says Hayashi. These days, a helicopter pilot could be at Ominato one day and heading off for four months on an Aegis Destroyer in the Indian Ocean the next.

Further south, at the air base in Hachinohe, the apron is lined with air patrol on a larger scale – a row of P-3C planes. These planes, all made under licence in Japan by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, are worth ¥10bn (€64m) each, and the Japanese have 90 of them.

Skilled crews leave the base 365 days a year to patrol the northern area of Japan, with enough fuel for the eight-hour flight. Their main role is anti-submarine patrol – the planes are laden with radar and detection equipment. In the winter months they report to the Meteorological Office on the flow of ice around the frozen seas of Hokkaido.

“When I joined the SDF and started training to be a pilot and training with the US – this was the time of the Soviet Union – spy planes were following us,” says Kenji Takigawa. “Since September 11 the type of threat has diversified. The potential for low-level conflict seems more frequent.”

This is the question which haunts Japan’s neighbours – if Japan is genuinely committed to peace, if the US guarantees its protection, then what is the SDF for?

“I joined at the time of the Cold War era when we were told we should be ready for any kind of emergency,” says the Chikuma’s Commander Hasebe. “In fact very little happened. Since the collapse of the USSR there’s much more instability in this region and now we’re also expected to contribute to international situations. Our original purpose was to defend this country but now our role has changed. Previously we were concentrating on training – now it’s about real life.” But it is Rear Admiral Shibata who comes closest to giving a direct answer. “Perhaps,” he says, “you’ve heard about our neighbour.”

Kim Jong-Il, with his advancing nuclear programme and unpredictability, is the proximate threat – but it is the Chinese who will shape the region’s strategic balance for decades to come (China’s destruction of one of its own satellites in January in a test of its long-range missile capabilities, was a jolting reminder that it is becoming a formidable military, as well as economic, power). And the day may not be far off when something more robust than Self-Defence Forces are required.

For centuries, Japan was a land of proud warriors; in 1945, that ended with the stroke of an American pen. Japanese legend is filled with the names of samurai heroes – but few people now could name a single one of the SDF’s generals. Since the Second World War one of the world’s richest militaries has survived without firing a shot in anger – and without a shot being fired at it. It is increasingly likely that in another 60 years, that will no longer be true.

“In other countries we might be called a navy but, for now at least, we are the MSDF,” says Lt Cdr Hasebe. “Now that we’re changing from an agency to a ministry our status is changing but in Japan it will take time. We’re moving towards being called a navy, I would expect that in the future. It’s difficult to explain to people outside Japan. We say, ‘It’s like a navy.’ People say, ‘What is the Maritime Self-Defence Force if it isn’t a navy?’

“So I say it is a navy.”

You can hear more about the JMSDF from our Tokyo bureau chief Fiona Wilson on the affairs section.

The elite fleet

With 47 destroyers and nine frigates, the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) has 22 more destroyers than China and only two fewer ships than the combined destroyer and frigate forces of France, Spain, Portugal and the UK.

Obviously, numbers alone do not tell the whole story and, with a force predicated on self-defence rather than expeditionary warfare, the MSDF suffers from a lack of naval strike aircraft, long-range anti-surface missiles and replenishment ships carrying fuel, ammunition, provisions and spare parts to sustain the fleet away from home.

However, the MSDF has, thanks to a relaxation of the Japanese constitution, increasingly been able to operate further afield. Recent deployments have seen Japanese vessels provide humanitarian assistance after the 2004 Asian tsunami and undertake anti-piracy patrols in the Strait of Malacca.

Admiral Eiji Yoshikawa, its chief of staff, recently told Jane’s Navy International that “Japan views its strategic alliance with the US as the cornerstone of peace and stability in all East Asia”. Almost all the force’s equipment is of US origin or design, as is its training, and the way it shares operations and bases with the US. For example, the destroyer force – the centrepiece of Japan’s operational response to North Korea’s ballistic missile testing – is set to follow the US to become only the second maritime force to field an active ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability, with four Kongou-class destroyers upgraded between now and 2010.

The MSDF has long been involved with the US Navy’s BMD programme at research, industry and navy levels, building advanced composite nose sections for Raytheon’s SM-3 interceptor missiles and successfully tracking ballistic missile targets off Hawaii. Last year Japan placed its first order for the interceptors.

The force also has substantial amphibious capabilities which will be boosted this year with the first of two new helicopter carrier destroyers. As these ships predominantly feature flat tops and are relatively large, they are – somewhat controversially – essentially small aircraft carriers. However, despite hawkish claims, the two ships have no ski-jumps or catapults to get fixed-wing aircraft airborne and will primarily be used as command and control platforms, able to deploy mine-hunter helicopters and provide troop-lift support.

Below the waves, Japan has 16 diesel-electric attack submarines, which, in purely numerical terms, make it one of the strongest forces in the entire Asia Pacific region, trailing only China, North Korea and the US. In qualitative terms the force could rank higher, as the boats are some of the most advanced in the area.

The submarine squadron is to be improved further over the next few years, with new vessels fitted with air-independent propulsion systems. These will improve the underwater stealth of the boats, reducing their need to hoist their snorkels to let the diesels breathe and charge the batteries.

Admiral Yoshikawa flies his flag over a technologically very capable force, well equipped for its traditional core tasks, if not yet for operating away from home. “The greatest challenge we’ll have to face in the years ahead will be to cope with those missions that are based on international co-operation. But I am convinced that we will achieve our goals,” he stated.

Nick Brown is editor of ‘Jane’s Navy International’

The view from

Pyongyang

On 29 October 2006 the new Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, reviewed the Japanese fleet from the flagship Kurama. Arrayed before him were 48 ships and more than 8,100 troops. Citing the need for a “more crucial and varied role” for the country’s armed forces, Abe singled out North Korea as the major threat to Japan, calling Pyongyang’s testing of a nuclear device on 9 October 2006 “unforgivable”.

Pyongyang, which has test-fired seven ballistic missiles over Japan since 1998, reacted by condemning Japan’s military modernisation, particularly the creation of the new Rapid Reaction Force in 2006, which allows it to employ a combined air, sea and ground strike force.

The MSDF has been undertaking operations in the Indian Ocean as part of the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). This has been aimed at interdicting materials that could support the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

The construction of the Aegis radar-equipped destroyers reflects Tokyo’s determination to press ahead with a missile defence system to nullify the North Korean threat. Prime Minister Abe has said that, faced with no other option, Japan could revise its constitution to allow a pre-emptive strike against North Korean missile sites.

Julian Lindley-French is senior scholar of the Centre for Applied Policy, University of Munich.

The view from

Beijing

China’s relations with Japan are complicated by the past and what Beijing regards as Japan’s refusal to face up to war crimes committed during the Second World War. This has been fuelled by the visits of successive Japanese prime ministers to the Yakasuni Shrine to the country’s 2.5 million war dead, in which 14 Class A war criminals are interred.

Since May 2000, Chinese ships have been entering Japanese waters on what appear to be intelligence-gathering missions, and also testing Beijing’s ability to intimidate the Japanese Self-Defence Force. Tensions rose markedly in December 2001 when the Japanese Coast Guard sank a North Korean spy vessel with the loss of all hands in an area that both Japan and China claim as an economic exclusion zone.

There are tentative signs of reconciliation, not the least of which is Prime Minister Abe’s planned visit to China in April 2007, the first such high-ranking visit since 2001.

China knows that its relationship with Japan has far-reaching strategic consequences, not just for the region but for the world at large. In July 2004, commenting on the Japanese defence white paper, the China Daily wrote, “the deployment of a missile defence system by Japan is intended to contain China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and lay the foundation for sharing Northeast Asian dominance with the United States”.

Unfortunately for Beijing, China’s unease over the expanding role of Japan’s armed forces is of its own making. Much of China’s military modernisation over the past decade has focused on denying the US and its allies access to the Sea of Japan in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Moreover, as China’s “blue water” fleet – intended to give it a global reach – is founded on conventional and nuclear submarines, Beijing is uncomfortable with Japanese military modernisation, such as the development of advanced missiles and super-quiet submarines.

Such Japanese acquisitions could well disrupt a Chinese fleet that by Western standards remains technologically outdated, with old-fashioned structures and methods. So the military competition between the two countries will doubtless continue.

The view from

Washington

There is a simple truism in the East Asian strategic balance. If the US remains credible as the stabilising force in the region, then an out-and-out arms race will be avoided. However, if US credibility fails, then conflicting economic powers, latent nationalism and territorial and resource disputes will lead to an arms race that could put world security in jeopardy.

The Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty was agreed in 1997 but since the 11 September attacks there has been a marked growth in the strength of Japan’s military commitment to this, its most important military alliance.

As engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan are stretching US forces thin, Washington is also pushing for a more robust Japanese military role in the region, and one that is clearly shaped to support America’s role. Although Japan’s military relationship with the US remains a sensitive domestic issue, not least because of misdemeanours by US forces based in Okinawa, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, have both been sympathetic to the US position. Consequently, Japan is fast becoming one of the vital players in US global strategy.

At the forefront of this relationship are the ties between the two forces. While the MSDF is still forbidden to acquire so-called “offensive weaponry”, its ability to safeguard sea lanes of communications, and support both US and British naval operations in the Indian Ocean is important. Japan is not alone in thinking it must be part of the emerging global naval network of stabilising democratic forces. If “the West” is not a place but an idea, Japan wants to be part of it.

Certainly, Washington remains committed to the emergence of a powerful Japanese navy and to its evolution into a “normal” democratic state, prepared to accept responsibility for global security.

The extent to which Japan turns its economic power into military power will be dependent on several factors: the continuing credibility of the US as the grand stabiliser in the region; domestic concerns about an offensive Japanese military capability and the debates over Article 9 of the Japanese constitution (which prohibits war against other countries); and the behaviour of both Pyongyang and Beijing.

Today, the MSDF is an offensive force in waiting. With the world’s largest stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium, an intercontinental missile capability in the form of the H2 launcher, and a superb shipbuilding capability, Japan could, within a relatively short time, become a military power of the first rank. Pyongyang, Beijing and Washington understand that. Much will depend on the next five years and shifts in the East Asian balance of power. However, the return of Japan as a “normal state” is well underway, with the MSDF in the vanguard. And the world will be a safer place for it.

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