| TOKYO, March 14
TOKYO, March 14 Being a soldier in Japan after
World War Two was seen as a job for failed police recruits and
unemployed youth from depressed rural towns. But as tension with
China chips away at Japan's post-war pacifism, the military is
regaining its prestige - helped by a blitz of television dramas,
movies and cartoons.
Patriotic zeal is now a more compelling reason to enlist. A
decade ago, around one in 10 candidates said they wanted to be a
soldier for love of country. These days it's closer to one in
three, according to recruitment data obtained by Reuters.
Film directors, animators and TV producers have delivered a
bumper crop of military-themed content, much of it with help
from the Ministry of Defense.
Hit shows include "Girls und Panzer", a cartoon about
schoolgirls fighting tank battles, and "Eternal Zero", a movie
about a kamikaze pilot that its director made in part to counter
an image of Japanese soldiers as fanatics.
The military's attempt to emerge from decades in the shadows
is in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's more nationalistic
tone and a less apologetic diplomacy.
Making the military cool is important for Abe's drive to
increase defence spending after years of cuts. But even a
soft-power approach to boosting defence risks inflaming tensions
with neighbours who still have strong memories of Japan's
"It's our job to explain to the Japanese people why we have
to raise the Self-Defense Force budget," said Hirokazu Mihara,
the head of public relations at the Defense Ministry. "We need
to have as close a relationship with them as possible."
That relationship is getting tighter.
Reflecting the praise the Self-Defense Force (SDF) won for
its rescue efforts after the devastating earthquake and tsunami
that hit Japan in 2011, a government survey in 2012 showed that
91.7 percent of respondents expressed a favourable opinion of
the military, the highest level since the survey began in 1969.
Escalating tension with China over maritime borders and the
threat from North Korean missiles have ensured the military's
place in the media spotlight.
"When I was at school, feelings about the war were strong
and anti-military feeling was high," said Yutaka Takaku, editor
of Mamoru, the Defense Ministry's official magazine. "That
allergy is going. People realise a military is necessary."
The growing popularity of soldiers as potential husbands
prompted Takaku to begin a dating feature that introduces three
single men from the navy, airforce or army every month.
Each issue also has a popular female model on its cover to
draw in men. In December it was Mai Fuchigami, the voice of one
of the lead characters in "Girls und Panzer".
The TV series, which ran last year, featured the girls
commanding old and modern tanks accurately drawn to scale. To
get those details right, staff from Bandai Visual, an animation
unit of computer game maker Namco Bandai, were granted
access to the army's tank school and other SDF bases.
The girls are never hurt in the cartoon battles, protected
by a special "carbon lining" in their tanks.
"We have presented it like a sports tournament. A real
battle would mean people dying," said producer Kiyoshi Sugiyama.
Bandai, which will release a "Girls und Panzer" movie this
year, has also collaborated with Wargaming.net, put out a mobile
social game in Japan and plans to sell a game for Sony Corp's
PSP Vita handheld console.
The cartoon, Sugiyama said, was not made to promote the
military but as a venture to make money for Bandai. Nonetheless,
the girls and their tanks have reinforced the military's public
relations, with copycat characters used in recruitment posters.
At the army's annual live-fire exercises last August, a
record 110,000 people applied for less than 6,000 public seats,
many of them fans of the cartoon.
"THE POWER OF POPULAR CULTURE"
Cute images have long been used by Japan's military but it
has become even more "warm and fuzzy" to appeal to young people,
said Sabinne Fruhstuck, professor of Modern Japanese Cultural
Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"The military has, along with other governmental agencies
and corporations, finally discovered the power of popular
culture. Thus those tank girls," said Fruhstuck, who wrote
"Uneasy Warriors", a 2007 book about the Japanese army.
But the popularity of the armed forces may not translate
into greater public backing for military action, she said.
The military's appetite for publicity prompted it to lend a
missile destroyer to Takashi Yamazaki, the director of "Eternal
Zero", for a day. The footage he took helped generate computer
images of a wartime aircraft carrier.
"If you approach the SDF with a proposal that is going to
make them look bad then you won't get anywhere," he said. "But
if it benefits both sides then they are ready to cooperate."
Yamazaki's movie led box office returns at the end of last
year. The tale of a kamikaze pilot moved prime minister Abe to
tears, according to media reports.
The resurgent role of the military and the prospect of
changes to Japan's pacificist constitution have alarmed its
Chinese and Korean neighbours.
Naoki Hyakuta, author of a 2006 book on which "Eternal Zero"
was based and an Abe-appointed member of state broadcaster NHK's
board, further fuelled those concerns in February.
In a speech backing Toshio Tamogami, a right-wing candidate
in elections for Tokyo's governor, Hyakuta denied the Nanjing
Massacre ever happened. China says 300,000 people were killed.
Other backers of Tamogami, who won 12 percent of the vote in
Tokyo, are also looking to transform wartime history.
Satoru Mizushima, the head of right-wing Internet TV service
Channel Sakura, welcomes the higher profile of the military as
"a return to normality". Japan's decision to go to war, he
argues, inspired Asian nations to throw off Western imperialism.
"The question is who is going to contain the fascist regime
in China and it looks like it is down to Japan," said Mizushima.
Yamazaki, the "Eternal Zero" director, also wants to revise
history lessons, albeit in a milder way.
"The education we received after the war was one sided," he
said. "That doesn't mean we have to flip to the other side but
we need to think how we can achieve a middle road."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)