A record number of Japanese flocked to a trade show for military paraphernalia and gaming that attracted recruiters for the country’s Self-Defense Forces, the latest sign Japan is shaking off its postwar pacifism.
About 4,000 people, including a growing number of women, attended the March 30 “Victory Show” and related “ASGK Festival” in Tokyo to shop for military uniforms and model weapons, take target practice with air guns and show off their prowess at the World of Tanks video game. That’s the largest crowd since the now-quarterly event started in 1981, when it drew about 80 people, organizers said.
“About 10 times more people come to our booth here than at ordinary venues,” said Nobuaki Sato, one of four SDF members from the northern prefecture of Iwate staffing the recruitment stall. “You can feel the interest.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s move to beef up defense spending and efforts to expand the role of the armed forces have focused public attention on the military. His push has coincided with rising tensions with an increasingly assertive China, as planes and ships from both countries regularly tail one another near disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Some attendees at the fair dressed in military uniforms, including those of the the Imperial Army, which invaded and occupied large swaths of Asia in the first half of the 20th century. Those uniforms are a symbol of a more vocal nationalism among some Japanese who are eager to throw off the stigma of the country’s defeat in World War II that led the U.S. to impose a pacifist constitution on the country.
“It used to be all U.S. and German uniforms, but now Japanese uniforms are becoming more popular, especially among the young,” said Osamu Motojima, one of the organizers, who is also a seller of military goods. “The war allergy seems to be fading,” he added.
Forty nine percent of Japanese people support Abe’s efforts to allow the military to come to the defense of its allies, compared with 43 percent who oppose such a move, according to a poll published by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper on March 15. Abe has increased defense spending for the second year running and has also loosened restrictions on some defense exports, which had been virtually banned.
The increased interest in military paraphernalia is probably due to “tensions with China as well as Abe’s hawkish manner and rhetoric,” said Sabine Fruhstuck, professor of modern Japanese cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She cited stepped-up official public relations material including some that is “feminized, infantilized and sexualized.”
Japan’s Self Defense Force hired model and actress Azusa Yamamoto to pose in military garb for its 2014 calendar. A popular television cartoon series, “Girls Und Panzer,” features young girls fighting tank battles. A film version is due for release later this year. The Okayama Provincial Cooperation Office has introduced manga comics mascots of three girls representing each branch of the SDF, along with an animated video with a female manga character welcoming people to its website.
At the Victory Show four women in matching pink t-shirts stood out among the men dressed in martial attire. Known as the Upi-upi squad, they have drawn a following among male enthusiasts for taking part in mock battles known as “survival games.” They were selling bracelets and compact discs of their music from their booth alongside military accessories.
“When it was only men playing survival games it was really serious,” said Makoto Ito, a 45-year-old former SDF member, who was wearing an Upi-upi hat and t-shirt and said he wanted to thank the group for taking part in the games. “Since women started joining in, it’s become less about winning or losing and more about having fun.”
Japan’s military isn’t the only one to target video gamers. The U.S. Army produces a series of downloadable games “to provide the public with a virtual soldier experience that was engaging, informative, and entertaining,” according to a press release for America’s Army games. The experience is targeted at “Internet savvy young Americans” to “let them learn about army career opportunities,” the press release said.
Public approval of Japan’s armed forces rose after their highly visible role in the rescue operation following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. More than 90 percent of respondents to a Cabinet Office survey published in January 2012 said they had a favorable impression of the self-defense forces, the highest since the poll began in 1969.
That hasn’t yet translated into a surge in recruitment. The defense forces received 76,500 applications for non-officer positions in 2012, down from 83,000 in 2011, according to Ministry of Defense figures.
“Joining the SDF seems like a cool idea,” said 21-year-old student Yuuki Mochida, dressed in military costume. “I’ll probably end up taking over the family business, though.”