JSDF Facing Serious Challenges in Recruitment

Japan’s defense budget has grown significantly in recent years. This September, Japan’s Ministry of Defense announced a $51.9 billion draft budget, well above the $44.8 billion of 2014 and even the record-high $48.6 billion of fiscal year 2020. The LDP (Japan’s governing party) has long been fighting a war to revise the constitution in order to expand the JSDF’s capabilities.

In 1991, the Middle-Eastern-oil-reliant Japan failed to contribute military personnel to Operation Desert Strom which angered many partners, forcing Japan to start reconsidering the feasibility of its pacifist foreign policy. With the exception of small right wing minorities, the Japanese public had for decades been opposed to any changes in the country’s pacifist post-war constitution. However, with the recent rise of China as a visible, legitimate threat to Japan, the LDP had managed to slowly but surely expand the JSDF’s mandate on the use of force. Japan has also expanded its military activities through increased cooperation with countries like Australia, the UK, India Vietnam and by contributing support personnel to UN peacekeeping missions.

Japanese peacekeepers returning home from South Sudan (via Kyodonews)

Nevertheless, Japan’s ability to maintain a powerful deterrent is being undermined by one key failure: recruitment. Since 2014, all of the JSDF’s branches have continuously failed to meet annual recruitment targets, with the Maritime SDF performing especially poorly. In 2018, Japan’s naval branch didn’t even meet 60% of its recruitment goal. What is the point of procuring two new Aegis destroyers if there won’t be anyone to crew them?

A number of reasons have been put forward to help explain the recent failures such as the increasing likelihood of JSDF engagement abroad or the increasing popularity of attending college has been brought up by some. Nevertheless, the declining birth rate definitely stands out. In 2019, Japan’s birth rate fell to below 900,000 for the first time, something which has never happened since statistics were first complied in 1899. By contrast, the number of deaths in 2019 approached 1,400,000. The JSDF’s core recruitment pool of people aged 18-26 declined from 17 million in the 1990s to just 11 million.

Maritime JSDF announcing it will be more active on YouTube (Ministry of Defense Maritime Self-Defense Force Official Channel)

The JSDF has been trying a variety of tactics to increase its appeal. Its social media campaigns have expanded, the JSDF takes any opportunity it can to take part in or organize public events, and its marketing itself through a 2015 anime series about the JSDF fighting off invaders from a medieval fantasy world; all in a bid to increase outreach.

Another strategy has been to focus on recruiting women who currently account for only 20% of JSDF applicants through an increased push in advertising. In 2018, the services have raised the age of acceptable recruits from a maximum of 26 to a maximum of 32. Furthermore, the Maritime JSDF has been taking steps such as loosening restrictions on usage of emails in order to be more attractive from a quality of life perspective.

JSDF recruitment posters utilizing characters from established anime series (via Matt Alt)

Nevertheless, despite the forces’ best attempts, even with the best PR campaign and more attractive job offers, the JSDF won’t be able to reverse fundamental demographic trends.