Japan’s Self-Defense Forces Struggle to Attract New Recruits

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A member of the Self-Defense Forces, right, distributes leaflets and stickers explaining SDF jobs to young men near JR Akihabara Station in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on July 21.

The Self-Defense Forces’ efforts to recruit new personnel face strong headwinds. In addition to a direct blow from the nation’s declining birthrate, the whole of the SDF was shaken by power and sexual harassment scandals last fiscal year. As a result, the SDF was only able to recruit about 60% of the planned number of new personnel who engage in front-line missions.

An expert panel of the Defense Ministry that had been discussing how to secure human resources for the SDF proposed fundamental reforms in July. The proposals included the elimination of harassment and improvements to working conditions, and the SDF is rushing to respond.

Summer a decisive time

In Tokyo’s Akihabara area, where the sun beat down on passersby in the afternoon on July 21, SDF personnel approached high school students in school uniforms and told them: “We are SDF members. We hold events across the nation. Would you please attend the events?”

Drenched in sweat, they handed over leaflets to the young people.

Until the end of August, the Defense Ministry plans to hold about 600 public exchange events at SDF facilities nationwide. These include displaying SDF vessels to the public and guided tours of SDF units.

The campaign is on an unprecedentedly large scale. The same day, SDF personnel also promoted the events in locations such as the Kinshicho and Suidobashi districts of Tokyo.

On July 1, the SDF’s recruitment and promotion activities were allowed to begin targeting high school students who are scheduled to graduate in spring next year.

Col. Minobu Matsumoto from the Recruiting and Career Transition Division of the Ground Staff Office said: “We are approaching this summer with the view that it is the decisive time in our recruitment activities. We talk about working conditions, the atmosphere of the SDF, and processes by which new recruits can grow, to attract interest from young people as the first step.”

‘Without personnel…’

Eyeing China’s aggressive maritime advances, the government aims to raise the annual defense budget from fiscal 2023-2027 to ¥43 trillion, which is 1.5 times larger than it is now.

However, in the report released on July 12, the ministry’s expert panel pointed out, “No matter how advanced the equipment the SDF procures, our defense capability cannot be demonstrated without personnel to operate it.”

The designated number of SDF personnel is about 247,000 in total. They are divided into three categories: rank-and-file members called “shi” in Japanese; noncommissioned officers who serve as core members of each unit; and commissioned officers who command them.

Recruiting has been especially difficult in the shi rank.

According to the Defense Ministry, the recruitment rate for this rank was between 80% and 100% in the past decade.

But in the last fiscal year, the SDF could secure only 10,120 of the required personnel, even though it planned to recruit 16,225. This saw the rate dive to 62%. The rate of new recruits secured to work as SDF personnel with short-term contracts, which are two to three years long, was only 43%.

The falls stem from such factors as the recovery of job offers from private companies, which were hiring fewer new recruits during the coronavirus crisis, and an increasing number of parents hesitating to let their children join the SDF following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Also, a scandal surfaced in which a former female GSDF member was sexually abused while she worked in a GSDF unit. It developed to the point where the Defense Ministry conducted special defense inspections of all SDF personnel. The scandal seems to have negatively affected recruitment activities.

Also in this fiscal year, a young GSDF member was involved in a shooting incident. It added fuel to the fire around the SDF’s recruitment difficulties.

A senior official of the Defense Ministry voiced concern saying: “The shi are mostly young people with physical strength. If we cannot secure enough new recruits in this rank, the SDF’s capability will be gradually weakened.”

Gen Z

The targets of SDF recruitment are young people aged 18 to 32, who belong to Generation Z and are familiar with the internet. The ministry is speeding up efforts to improve working conditions for them.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force is considering the introduction of Starlink high-speed internet via the satellite network of SpaceX, a U.S. space development company, so that crew members can maintain contact with their families via their smartphones. This is because MSDF missions involve months-long voyages.

Though wireless LAN connections are currently provided in limited spaces, young MSDF personnel have voiced deep dissatisfaction as the transmission speeds are slow.

The discussions about reforms even include rules about allowable hairstyles.

For example, the Air Self-Defense Force prohibits male personnel from “two block” haircuts, in which the hair is cut very short on the sides. The GSDF asks female personnel not to wear ponytails and state that short hair is desirable.

SDF officials said that the rules were decided because hairstyles could obstruct the wearing of caps or other headgear.

However, the expert panel pointed out in the report that the SDF’s internal rules “should be changed or abolished if they lack rationality, to the extent that this does not adversely affect the public’s trust.”

The report also mentioned a raise in monthly salaries and allowances for SDF personnel. Regarding harassment, it emphasized that “it is essential to build an organizational environment that does not tolerate these acts at all.”

Based on the proposals, the Defense Ministry plans to proceed with reforms.

‘Don’t fail to capture talent’

The number of babies born last year announced by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry was a record low of 770,000. This is less than half the around 2 million births every year in the 1970s.

As the birthrate is likely to continue declining, it is predicted that the SDF’s securing of new recruits will become more and more difficult.

Prof. Hajime Ota of Doshisha University said, “Generation Z tends to avoid hierarchical human relationships, and is sensitive to harassment within an organization.”

The professor, an expert in organizational theory, continued: “Even if the low birthrate continues further, I’m sure there are young people who will find SDF jobs rewarding and want to join the forces. So as not to fail to attract such talent, it is necessary to fully utilize online tools and proceed with organizational reforms.”