On Nov. 20, the Japanese Ministry of Defense confirmed that military recruitment figures for the 2014 fiscal year had declined compared to the previous year. The number of applicants on the non-commissioned officer fast-track fell 10 percent. The number of aviation school applicants fell five percent.
Mainichi Shimbun was the only Japanese news agency to report the fall in applications. Its story spread around the Chinese press via South China Morning Press.
While the figures are probably correct, Mainichi’s article betrays its political bias. The paper assumes, without much evidence, that the decline is a result of the government’s recent—and controversial—decision to give Japan the legal right to go to war to defend its allies.
“The Defense Ministry started soliciting applications after the government made a cabinet decision on July 1 to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense,” Mainichi asserts.
The Defense Ministry denied there was any link between the fall in prospective servicemembers and the constitutional reinterpretation, according to the paper.
Mainichi Shimbun opposes collective self-defense. The article pushes that stance at the expense of the broader context. Namely, a declining birthrate, low unemployment and a ministry desperately competing for young workers.
In other words, there’s a better explanation for Japan’s military recruitment problem than some popular revolt against the government’s new war policy.
Behind the stats
The Mainichi article provides figures for only three of 11 different entry pathways into the Self-Defense Forces, and doesn’t break down the applications by service. The Ministry of Defense has not yet made the figures for 2014 available on its Website, so we must work only with the figures and career tracks Mainichi has given us—non-commissioned officer candidates, aviation school and the National Defense Academy.
A person can enlist in the Self-Defense Forces two ways. The first is a limited-service track that commits recruits to three years—or two for soldiers—with the option of extending their service at the end of their terms. The second is the non-commissioned officer track at the core of Mainichi’s argument.
Non-commissioned officer candidates join the Self-Defense Forces with the intention to stay. These career-track entrants make up 60 to 70 percent of the military’s total manpower. They will become sergeants and petty officers around the same time as their limited service track colleagues prepare to head back into civilian life.
This is the group that saw 10 percent fewer applications this year.
You can track the same figures in the Mainichi article back over through the course of six years thanks to a chart in the annual defense white paper breaking down applications by entry route. Do that for the years available—from fiscal year 2009—and this year suddenly seems less special.
Yes, there were 3,433 fewer career-track applicants this year, but this is nothing compared to the 33-percent drop in interest between 2011 and 2012.
2011 could be anomalous. That year’s recruitment drive began as the Self-Defense Forces were searching for missing people from Japan’s deadliest disaster since World War II—the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Applications hit an all-time high that year following the military’s sudden boost in respectability and public trust.
But even if you ignore the spike in 2011, the number of applicants in 2012 was still 13,784 short of the total for 2010.
With this context, it’s hard to consider this year’s drop significant. It amounts to just 73 fewer people applying from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. If there’s any real trend here, it dates back to 2011 at the latest and predates the government’s reinterpretation of the constitutional ban on collective self-defense.
If the fall in applications has anything to do with the perceived greater possibility that Japan will go to war, it also doesn’t seem to be bothering the other potential recruits whom Mainichi lists.
Tracking applications to fill the Self-Defense Forces’ aviation schools and National Defense Academy back to 2009, we can see that the variation is nothing more than noise.
Pilots would be a major part of any act of collective self-defense, but applications for military aviation schools is slightly higher than the mean applications for the past six years. Despite the five-percent drop since last year, there were as many aviation student applications from high school students this year as in 2011—and more than in 2009 and 2010.
The wannabe future leaders of the Japanese military are even less perturbed. The small 25-person drop in applicants to the National Defense Academy still leaves a larger group of applicants than in any year before 2012. Applications to the academy are significantly above average for the past six years.
This is enough to dismiss Mainichi’s assertion that worries about collective self-defense are having a significant impact on military recruiting in the three entry tracks the article discusses.
But we can go farther than that. Even if worry over Japan going to war is driving down recruitment figures, it’s just one of many pressures that the Self-Defense Forces are dealing with.
Social pressures on recruitment
The Self-Defense Forces have commanded more respect since 2011 than at any time since their creation 60 years ago. After years of being labeled “unconstitutional tax thieves,” the military has finally found some traction in wider society.
Ask any new recruit why they are joining and they will mention the disaster relief operations after the 2011 tsunami. But despite a new-found respectability, recruitment is under pressure from broader social forces.
The Ministry of Defense discusses its recruitment challenges in its annual white paper. “Due to the declining birthrate and increasing university enrollments the recruitable population has been decreasing in size, and the general recruitment climate for SDF personnel has been becoming increasingly severe,” the 2014 Defense of Japan publication lamented.
This year, the national workforce contracted for the first time in 32 years. Since 1993, the enlistable population of 18 to 26-year olds has fallen rapidly from around 17.5 million to 11.5 million—a 35-percent drop in possible applicants.
Every year, the number of 18-year-olds entering the workforce falls by an average of 14,000 people—1.3 percent year-on-year. But this year, the number of 18-year-olds dropped by 4.3 percent. 43,000 fewer candidates were available to join, the largest drop since 2004.
The Self-Defense Forces share much of the same recruiting pool as the police and fire services. The few statistics available for the current year’s recruitment to municipal fire services shows a small increase in recruitment in Osaka and Sapporo. The same is not true for the prefectural police services.
Polices recruitment figures mirror the fall in non-commissioned officer candidate applications. Prefectural forces with readily available figures for the current recruitment year reported fewer people taking the police entrance exams.
The percentage difference upon last year is similar to the military’s 10-percent drop—Chiba (12.2 percent), Ehime (15.3 percent), Hyogo (7.1 percent), Saitama (18.3 percent). Kanagawa (10.7 percent) and Miyazaki (6.2 percent).
The police suffer from the same declining birth-rate … and the same pool of high-school graduates in an increasingly competitive job market.
Low unemployment drives competitive wages as companies compete for workers. In April 2014, Japan had a ratio of job vacancies to job-seekers of 1.08. That means there are more jobs available than people who want to find a job.
The government reported 240,000 more people in employment in October 2014 than the previous year—the 22nd consecutive month of rising employment figures. Over the same period, the number of unemployed fell by 300,000—the 53rd consecutive month of falling unemployment.
Part-time and temporary work pads these figures, but that has been similarly true since the economic crisis of 2008.
Periods of low unemployment tend to see reduced applications to government jobs such as the military and police. These positions also have more rigorous screening for health and background than many private-sector positions which further reduces the number of eligible candidates.
Increased university enrollment is another factor. For many of those who are unable to pass the arduous public university entrance examinations but do not have the money for private universities, the Self-Defense Forces offer a door to a safe civil service career.
Those who manage to enter the National Defense Academy can also work their way into a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, university application statistics won’t be available until later next year.
Japan’s military recruitment budget rose 3.7 percent this year but still comprises just 0.02 percent of the total annual budget. It leaves very little money to go around. If the budget was evenly split among Japan’s 47 prefectures where prefectural cooperation office conduct the bulk of the recruitment efforts, each office would receive just $200,000 for the current year.
But despite their budgetary constraints, the Self-Defense Forces are showing increasing marketing savvy. One example is the recent national television campaign featuring Haruka Shimazaka of the incredibly popular girl idol group AKB48.
Despite its star power, the commercial isn’t all that different from previous big budget ads. What makes it different is the keen eye for image and audience behind it.
“In the Self-Defense Forces, your boundless dreams are spread out in front of you,” Shimazaka tells viewers.
The commercial flashes up text. “Unlock your potential.”
“You are not alone—everyone is with you,” Shimazaka continues. In the background we see flashes of service-members handling equipment, hugging children. More tellingly, we don’t see any rifles, tanks or warships.
The commercial projects a white-washed version of what it means to serve in Japan’s military. Even if the message isn’t all that dissimilar from the U.S. Army’s enduring “be all you can be” commercials, American recruitment ads—along with most military recruitment adverts around the world—are unafraid of showing the weapons of war that recruits will work with.
The same is not true for Japan, where the government has always downplayed the military’s war potential.
Consider the commercial’s slogan—“You and Peace.” It promotes the Self-Defense Forces’ role as a disaster relief and peacekeeping force. Which is not a complete lie—those are the SDF’s main roles today.
The people behind the advertisement were cautious to present an image that makes military jobs more attractive than they probably really are—in order to compete with private-sector recruitment.
Despite this, the fall in applicants the Ministry of Defense reported shows that the advert, despite piquing foreign-language media, was not all that effective, after all.
Yes, the commercial—like its predecessors—dodges the reality, that recruits could wind up fighting a war. No one denies that the public is increasingly aware of the dangers of military service. But the figures don’t bear out the notion that this is significantly affecting recruitment. There are too many other variables at work.