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The front line of Japan’s defense (Part 5): SDF members are the last line of defense

With a low whir, two of the U.S. Marine Corps’ new transport aircraft, the “Osprey,” landed at the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) Aibano Training Area in Takashima City, Shiga Prefecture, on Feb. 5. Twenty GSDF members armed with rifles rushed out of the aircraft. They kept running while sweeping the area with their eyes until they heard the radio call “Endex” (end of exercise). This was a scene during “Forest Light-02,” a joint exercise between the GSDF and the U.S. Marine Corps.


SDF members undergo training every day but there is one problem that the SDF is unable to solve: the declining birthrate.


“The SDF offers a rewarding job serving people and your country,” said GSDF Maj. Ryuzo Tamura, 40, of the recruitment section at the SDF Tokyo Provincial Cooperation Office in Koto Ward, Tokyo, speaking to about 30 students at a job seminar on Feb. 2. “You don’t have to worry about physical strength, because you will gradually build up your strength and endurance.” More students stop at the SDF booth than corporate booths. However, Tamura said, “Students listen to our explanation, but whether they will join the SDF is a different story.”


“The largest challenge is to enhance the SDF’s human resource base,” said MSDF Chief of Staff Yutaka Murakawa, 61, stressing the sense of crisis. In fiscal 2017, the SDF recruited a total of 7,513 fixed-term “noncommissioned officers” centering on high school graduates, which is 20% below the recruitment target. Actual recruitment fell short of SDF expectations for the fourth year in a row. Former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, 61, a former GSDF member, said, “The popularization of higher education and the declining birth rate are impacting SDF recruitment.”


In October 2018, the Defense Ministry raised the age limit for accepting SDF members and cadets from 26 to 32. 


“Make sure you take advantage of the new age limit in your recruitment drive,” GSDF Col. Shuzo Yoshida, the recruitment section chief at the SDF Tokyo Provincial Cooperation Office, told about 20 SDF heads of local offices located across the country. Yoshida has also utilized websites and various events to reach people who are looking to change jobs. 


On Nov. 9 in 2018, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, 61, instructed all SDF organizations that their members should be provided with sufficient daily necessities and office supplies. This was in response to an opposition party member’s comment a week ago in a Diet session that “SDF members are buying toilet paper at their own expense.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the defense minister to quickly address the issue. Improving the working conditions of SDF members will be a step toward resolving the shortfall in human resources.


“Toss your hats!”  Shortly after the traditional hat toss celebration at their graduation ceremony held in Edajima City, Hiroshima Prefecture, on Feb. 7, about 100 officers embarked on a long cruise. 


Against the background of the rapidly changing security environment, the last line of defense supporting the SDF is each of its members.

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