The Army That Isn’t An Army, Just A “Team”

BY Aaron Krall May 01, 2013 • 0 COMMENTS



Part 2: The Army That Isn’t An Army, Just A “Team”

In August of 1894, not even thirty years after the nation finally opened its ports and began to modernize, Japan entered the race of global colonization by invading Manchuria and successfully taking Korea, formally a vassal state of China under the Qing dynasty. Japan had just become the dominant force in Asia, and because China had leased a portion of the coastline to Russia for their warm water port, Port Arthur, they were going to have to prove it. As surprising as it was for everyone to see Japan defeat China, the surprise was significantly greater when Japan proved victorious over Russia in September of 1905. The rest of the world was forced to reassess this island nation that had not been taken especially seriously until the moment it became the first Asian country to defeat a European country.

Japan was pleased with its victory and new regard as a world power, but resentful of how the Treaty of Portsmouth, the formal conclusion to the war (fun fact: international tough guy Theodore Roosevelt moderated the treaty and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize), played out for them. While they did gain a great deal, they were forced to give up China and Korea and did not get a war indemnity, which would have been a very large sum of money, from Russia. The Japanese public was not happy about this, and the frustration lead to the Hibiya riots and political upheaval. Relations between Japan and the US and Britain began to break down, although Japan nevertheless sided with the allies in WWI. Twenty years later, though, despite its still fledging industrial capability, it declared war on the United States.

After WWII came the seven year occupation by the United States, and once Japan regained its independence it immediately formed the Japan Self Defense Force and created its defense policy. The Basic Defense Policy has, among other points, a policy concerning a need to “avoid becoming a major military power that might pose a threat to the world.” Then came Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution which states

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Under this article, Japan would not allow itself to have an army or to wage war of any kind. Even when urged to develop one, both by the government and other countries, the public backlash to rearming and to war in general was so intense that the idea was abandoned. Being the only nation in the world to have experienced a nuclear attack, Japan early on stated its abhorrence to nuclear weapons and determination to never possess them or an army (Japan does not have any nuclear weapons and no desire to get any, but it is considered “nuclear capable” as Japan is believed to be capable of easily constructing one if there were a radical shift in politics). And technically, despite having the seventh largest military budget in the world and having the most technologically advanced military equipment in Asia, it still doesn’t have an army.

The JSDF is called 自衛隊, or “Jieitai”. “Tai” is translated most often as “team” or “group”, with no verbal indication of a military. The men and women in the JSDF are officially called自衛隊員, or “Jieitai-in”, with the “-in” meaning simply “member”. There is never any official reference to them as “soldiers” in Japan, because Japan doesn’t have an army and thus cannot have any soldiers.

One must remember, up until WWII Japan had a pretty good winning streak. For the previous 1500 years it had been fighting only itself usually, so there was always someone around to say “hooray I won”. Then it defeated China, defeated Russia, and annexed Korea. It became a major player in the world scene, and when WWII rolled around it was a war unlike any the earth had ever seen; it was a war that Japan lost. The trauma of the war and of the nuclear attack that finished it brought out extreme pacifism in the populace, so much so that all clubs, schools, and societies associated with the military and martial skills were eliminated. Teaching martial arts of any kind was forbidden. These were not rules imposed upon them by the US, they were imposed upon themselves by themselves. No more wars, please.

The JSDF remains, on paper, what it was at its inception: an extension of the national police force. There is no army, navy, or air force; there’s the Ground Self-Defense Force, the Maritime Self-Defense Force, and the Air Self-Defense Force. So anti-militarization was the public that for a long time, tanks were referred to as “special vehicles”. The government had to assure at each step of development, that control of the armed forces was in civilian hands. Even so, challenges to the JSDF’s legitimacy (because c’mon, you’re not fooling anybody, that’s not a “team” that’s a damn army right there) were made all the way up to the 80’s. Japan really did not want an army, and it certainly did not want to fight anymore.

To this day, the JSDF has never been militarily active on foreign soil. Soldiers–rather, members–have been deployed to assist in administrative duties and the like, but never in a combat capacity. Until, that is, 2004 when Japan sent troops to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq, a decision that was very controversial. It was the first time troops had been deployed anywhere that wasn’t expressly for UN peacekeeping or administrative purposes. The JSDF is explicitly a Self-Defense force, meant to be used only to defend Japan, a goal to which the situation in Iraq did not seem related at all.

While there, the forces were forbidden to fire upon Iraqi insurgents unless fired upon first. That rule is in effect whenever JSDF forces go anywhere outside of Japan, which is very rare.

These days, however, North Korea has grown more and more antagonistic and has threatened missile launches — although their capability to do so with any degree of success is doubted — and China has risen to become a power that can perhaps even challenge the US. With two enormous armies right across the water, one of which under the command of a diminutive madman’s son, who may, for all we know, be twice as crazy, Japan has one again begun cautiously raising the subject of the JSDF’s role. Now with China and Japan arguing over the Senkaku Islands and China determined to protect its claim on them, with force if need be, those conversations have grown slightly more urgent.

While no one has really spoken on it, the other powers in the area, including the US, are watching. Nervously, perhaps, because as luck would have it all the major powers in the area — China, North and South Korea, Russia, and the US — have been victims of an unprovoked Japanese attack within the last 100 years. Those wars were the result of Japan suddenly realizing it had advanced weapons and people trained to use them.

I do wonder, though, if Japan’s sudden aggression at the end of the 19th century was a result of the nation looking out into the world and seeing colonization and its accompanying horrors happening all over the globe. Had it instead seen relative peace, seen the world powers respecting weaker nations’ borders and sovereignty, would it have acted differently? I feel that it’s very possible that Japan simply looked out into the world and thought “It’s like that out there? Shit, we can do that.”

Was Japan just attempting to mimic the western cultures with which it had finally come into contact, trying to keep up with what it saw as the primary sport of powerful nations? Is that still the primary sport, and if so, does Japan have a right to play along?