- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 14, 2003

TOKYO — “Go! Go! Peace!” is the new call to arms in Japan, where a hot candy-coated pop group is trying to win recruits for a beleaguered military straining under expanded overseas missions and a severe manpower shortage.

Japan’s tumbling birthrate and budget cuts have long undercut recruitment. But the pinch is especially painful now as Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are at their most active since World War II, with stepped-up peacekeeping commitments in Afghanistan and plans to send troops to Iraq.

Past recruitment drives haven’t managed to fill Japan’s barracks, despite a decreasing overall number of troops.

Now the Defense Agency is banking on the new campaign poster — 130,000 of which were rolled out last week — to help reverse the trend.

Featuring a midriff-baring 15-member lineup of the all-girl pop group Morning Musume (Daughters), it beseeches Japan’s best and brightest with the slogan, “Go! Go! Peace!” written in English.

Previous campaigns also used pop stars, but this time the smiling teenage and twentysomething idols are wearing pastel-colored polka-dotted sundresses, not olive-drab military fatigues.

This is meant to make the military less off-putting and more hip, said Takuichiro Tada, a recruitment official with the Defense Agency.

Also signaling a turnaround in recruitment strategy, the poster does not call for recruits directly. Its message is more subtle: “Doing your best feels good.”

“We think it is more representative of regular people,” Mr. Tada said.

Winning increased interest and respect from Japan’s younger generation is crucial for its military. Last year, the Self-Defense Forces budgeted for 258,000 uniformed troops, but were able to enlist only 240,000. The land forces fared the worst, with only 89 percent of their boots filled, the military’s figures show.

In the long run, Mr. Tada said, Japan’s plummeting birthrate is expected to shrink the pool of eligible recruits even further.

In June, Japan announced that its already dwindling birthrate fell to 1.32 children per woman last year, the lowest since the end of World War II.

The problem is a growing concern for Japan, which has pledged in recent years to take a higher profile in international peacekeeping missions.

In a breakthrough move after the September 11 terror attacks on the United States, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sent troops, ships and planes to aid the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan — a mission that has tied up thousands of Japanese soldiers.

Last month, Japan’s parliament approved the dispatch of more troops to aid reconstruction of Iraq, reportedly 1,000 combat engineers.

How to juggle the increased missions with the military’s tighter personnel constraints was cited in last week’s annual Defense Agency policy paper as one of its biggest challenges.

“On the one hand, the areas of activity for Self-Defense Forces are increasing. But on the other, the set number of troops is decreasing,” the paper said, adding it was crucial to re-evaluate how the military can “smoothly manage” the influx of duties.

Mr. Tada said budget cuts as part of a post-Cold War reshuffle would trim the size of military making it a “more compact and efficient force,” but the long-term reality meant even those spaces would be hard to fill.

Defense analysts say recruitment could be undercut even further by the trend of active overseas peacekeeping missions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The proposed Iraq mission, for example, is opposed widely by the Japanese public, which fears casualties. People once joked that joining the Self-Defense Forces, bound by Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, was a safe job — no more, as more troops are put in harm’s way.

Moreover, young Japanese tend to join the military for experience in technical fields — not grunt work in war-ravaged countries.

Many could be turned off by overseas assignments, said Hisao Iwashima, a former analyst at the National Institute for Defense Studies, a Defense Agency affiliate.

“Most SDF members are not the best types for peacekeeping work,” Mr. Iwashima said. “Many may resign.”

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