The Japan Self-Defense Force: A Crisis in the Ranks

September 11, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: JapanMilitaryTechnologyWarTroops

The Japan Self-Defense Force: A Crisis in the Ranks

Japan's military isn't replenishing its ranks fast enough. Why?


Is it any wonder then that the JSDF can’t find enough recruits?

Money and benefits aren’t everything, but they do matter. You pay for what you value—it is also a sign of respect and appreciation. Suppose the U.S. military had the same conditions as the JSDF: would America could maintain its military forces? Unlikely.


The JSDF service must not continue to be a life of deprivation for Jieikan and their families. This won’t attract new recruits, nor will it encourage Jieikan to stay on for a career if they do join. The typical Japanese encouraging spirit—cries of gambaro (go for it!!!) or gamman (endure!!!) spirit—will only get you so far.

Why Should Washington Care?

It is an “alliance issue.”

The days when America could, by itself, take care of Japan’s defense and keep order in Asia are long past. The U.S. military needs a capable, properly resourced and motivated JSDF to help defend freedom in Asia.

If JSDF isn’t fixed, in a matter of years it will be manned, or better said, undermanned, by Jieikan averaging thirty-eight years old who know they are being poorly treated—while still being expected to die for Japan. This is becoming increasingly likely as China throws its weight around in northeast Asia.

Of course, the Jieikan will always follow orders, but one need not look far in the JSDF ranks to find Jieikan who aren’t keen on going to war if they are underappreciated.

It’s a vicious cycle for the JSDF. It can’t attract enough young recruits because terms of service are unattractive. Meanwhile, the overall force “ages,” thus reducing JSDF capability, given that military service is a young person’s game. And the “geriatrification” of the JSDF will continue as JSDF retirement ages are scheduled to rise in coming years. The idea seems to be that if JSDF can’t attract enough people it will keep them around longer.

There is even some resentment in parts of the JSDF over Japanese government spending on U.S. forces (so called “host nation support”)—that otherwise would go to the Jieikan. That is not good for the alliance.

Washington ought to worry.

Perhaps the Americans will apply gai atsu (foreign pressure) on the Japanese Government to make JSDF service more attractive—and even more respected. Making it more like service in the U.S. military would be a start. It need not be identical, but it does need to be much better.

The alliance (and Japan) depends on it.

Kumi Nishimura served in the JSDF in both the active and reserve components. She also worked as a civilian with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines.

Image: Reuters