A 6:00 a.m. bugle call summons 22-year-old student Mutsumi Iida to begin a day organized by the minute between study, sports and training until lights out at 10:30 p.m.
She picked the National Defense Academy over the freedom of an ordinary university as the best route to her dream of becoming an officer in Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. The largest number of young people in 26 years followed in Iida’s footsteps to the college this year, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes a more active defense posture. Abe today announced plans to expand the role of the military, after an advisory panel said the government could reinterpret the pacifist constitution.
“I want to work on a warship,” she said in an interview in a classroom on the 160-acre seaside campus at Yokosuka, 70 kilometers (43 miles) south of Tokyo. “I want to be at the forefront of national defense. Japan is an island nation, so I think this is the way to get most deeply involved.”
Hemmed in by the country’s charter and lingering resentment over World War II, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have not traditionally been a route to the top echelons of business or government. Admiration for the defense forces’ role in disaster relief, particularly after the 2011 tsunami, and a deepening territorial dispute with China has fueled national pride and increased interest in the academy even as recruits face an unaccustomed level of danger.
“In the U.S. and Europe, members of the military are still ordinary members of society,” said Ryosei Kokubun, a civilian China scholar who became president of the academy in 2012. “In Japan, they were not treated as such for many years.”
Kokubun said military uniforms are such a rare sight on Japan’s streets that students often change into civilian dress when they leave campus. He had a planned external lecture canceled when the organizers learned he was working at the academy.
That prejudice is fading, he said. The SDF boasted a more than 90 percent approval rating in a government poll in 2012, compared with 67.5 percent in 1991. The percentage of those seeking to join the armed forces “for the sake of the country” was about 30 percent in 2012, compared with 12 percent nine-years earlier, making it the primary reason given.
This year the academy’s dormitories are crowded -- 571 people took up spots, the most since 1978. The numbers of young people taking the entrance exam, which only 1-in-10 pass, have risen for two years, even with the youth population shriveling due to one of the world’s lowest birth rates.
Alongside the standard academic curriculum and an extra dose of security studies, students learn skills like how to dismantle and re-assemble a gun, often marching in formation to class, briefcases in hand. Meals take place in a vast mess hall seating 2,000 and when lectures are over, cadets attend sports clubs, including martial arts such as kendo, judo and sumo.
“I think you get a better education there than at an ordinary university,” said Rear Admiral Umio Otsuka, who graduated in 1983. “You have no free time, so you can’t slack off.”
Japan’s SDF have their roots in the Imperial Army that was disbanded after the country’s 1945 surrender. The constitution imposed by the U.S. after the conflict barred Japan from waging war, limiting the military to a purely defensive role. The postwar forces have never fired a shot in battle.
Japan’s forces number about 225,000, a fraction of neighboring North Korea’s more than 1 million-man army and about a 10th that of China. While there is no plan to increase troop numbers, Abe is seeking a more proactive stance amid concerns over North Korea’s nuclear capability and China’s military ambitions.
Abe today appealed to the public to back a plan to allow Japan to come to the aid of allies through a reinterpretation of the constitution. The move is favored by the U.S., which maintains 38,000 troops in the country, and could also pave the way for Japan to take a broader role in international peacekeeping. Abe passed a second annual increase in defense spending and has loosened restrictions on arms exports as part of his security push.
“Some have misinterpreted these considerations as meaning that Japan will once again become a country that goes to war,” Abe said today in Tokyo. “Nothing like that can happen. I want to state clearly that we will continue to maintain the pacifism contained in Japan’s constitution.”
The drive comes after China more than doubled military spending since 2006 as it seeks to build a blue-water navy capable of operating far from its ports. Chinese and Japanese ships regularly tail one another around disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The year to March saw a record 415 jet dispatches to intercept Chinese planes approaching Japanese airspace and Japanese troops on May 10 began a training exercise for retaking an island captured by an enemy.
“As a Japanese citizen, I see national defense as very important and even noble,” said Keiichi Miyagawa, a 21-year-old defense academy student from the northern island of Hokkaido. “The SDF only comes into the spotlight in times of emergency, whether that’s a natural disaster or an attack by another country. I am personally very proud to support the country from behind the scenes.”
While the academy is attracting more officer candidates, the Defense Ministry faces a tough recruiting environment after the population of those aged 18-26 slumped to 11 million in 2012, from 17 million in 1994. Applications to the SDF as a whole fell about 7 percent in 2012.
Unlike regular Japanese university students, those at the NDA are charged no fees and are paid a monthly allowance of about 108,000 yen ($1,061). As the youngest of five children, Iida said finance was a factor in her choice of college.
One member of the new intake of cadets expressed amazement at his new lifestyle and uncertainty about the future.
“It’s way more brutal than I imagined,” said 18-year-old Seiichi Warikata from Hokkaido. “Relations with surrounding countries are worsening and when I join the forces, it’s not something I want to talk about, but if it comes to a war, will I actually be capable of sacrificing my life?”