Will Japan’s youth go to war because a pretty girl told them to?

Or has Shinzo Abe finally run out of ideas?

Japanese citizens have protested against a defence policy change by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe [EPA]

On July 1, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe announced that for the first time since the end of World War II, Japan would now be able to fight wars on foreign soil.

In the past, Japan’s military has been reserved strictly for defence – hence its official title, the Self Defence Force (SDF). But thanks to this new reinterpretation of the constitution, the only thing that is necessary for military mobilisation is for one of Japan’s allies to be “attacked”. This is a scary prospect if we consider that Japan’s biggest ally is the US (and when we consider how many enemies the US has made over the past few years).

Perhaps the pros and cons of re-militarisation is a topic worth discussing. Unfortunately for the people of Japan, and of the East Asian region, this discussion has never occurred, as Abe’s administration is making the decision for them.

In response, there has been an unprecedented amount of opposition. Protests are happening every other day, and seem to only be growing in size and intensity.

Some Euro-American press outlets have grazed the surface of this phenomenon, but they seem to be missing the gravity of the situation. Perhaps because reporters are unable to see the Japanese as anything but docile and passive, or because they are attempting to portray the protesters in a “respectable” light, they have overlooked the anger and confusion that is beginning to grip Japan.

That is, protesters aren’t stopping at writing letters, or rousing chants of “save our Constitution”. Many of the protesters are much less polite. They are out in the streets, calling for Abe’s head: shouting “Die, Abe”, or “Fascists, go to hell!” and holding up posters with Abe’s face in crosshairs.

Abe strikes back

While they have clearly underestimated the magnitude of the opposition, the Abe administration seems to have anticipated some resistance. The same day the government made the announcement, they also released an SDF recruitment commercial (Youtube link). This 15-second clip stars Haruka Shimazaki of AKB 48, Japan’s most famous idol girl group.

Haruka Shimazaki, member of all-girl J-pop idol group AKB 48, appears in a recruitment commercial for the Japanese military [Snapshot from Youtube video of the commercial] 

We might wonder if a male spokesperson might be a better choice: for example, a member of Exile, a J-pop supergroup of 19 men. They are one of the most successful and recognisable pop groups in Japan, with their own magazine, TV show, and over a dozen chart-topping albums. They regularly appear half-clothed on advertisements and billboards, and represent the pinnacle of mass-market masculinity. Also, Abe clearly has access to them: He invited them to perform at an ASEAN banquet only a few months ago. Wouldn’t an Exile member in fatigues be a great encouragement to get young men to rush to the nearest recruitment centre?

In short: no, because it would be too realistic. If one of these popular young men appeared in a military advertisement, it would be too easy to imagine that young man being killed in a war – and, by extension, for a young man watching the commercial to imagine themselves dying. Or, for anyone with a son or brother to imagine that person dying.

Instead, the aim behind using AKB 48 seems to be an attempt to appeal to a specific male desire to protect “their” women, all while cleverly sidestepping the possibility of danger.

War without actual war

Most countries’ military commercials give a glorified version of military service – bravery, sacrifice, adventure. We see images of men and women holding guns, sitting in tanks, and actually preparing for combat. This commercial does none of that.

Instead, the SDF commercial spends more time on close ups of the pretty girl’s face than anything else. The rest of the shots are mainly dedicated to pictures of young men standing at attention or running with tote bags. The last shot of a uniformed soldier is a smiling man hugging a young girl, with the caption “Disaster Relief”.

In other words, there is no mention of armed combat. The cutesy voiceover tells the viewer that the military is a place that is “like the sky, full of unlimited dreams”. This is no longer a military recruitment spot, this is an invitation to Tokyo Disneyland.

Inside Story – Japan’s defence policy: Overturning pacifism

The government has experimented with using girl groups to raise military enrolment before. In 2012, for example, they parked a tank in front of an AKB fan club shop in Akihabara, Japan’s computer and anime nerd heaven, and passed out promotional materials. The military band also regularly performs AKB songs.

But this is a much more carefully orchestrated campaign. The use of cute girls to deflect the fear of war is so brilliantly executed, in fact, that it is beginning to make people suspicious.

For its part, much of the Japanese media has also tried to downplay the controversy. Footage of demonstrations is rarely shown on the news, and when a man set himself on fire in protest of the reinterpretation, commentators avoided talking about why he did it.

The right wing has also thrown its weight behind Abe’s PR campaign. Ultra-right politician Toshio Tamogami, perhaps best known for being forced to resign as head of the Air Force for publicly suggesting (among other things) that the Nanking Massacre was secretly orchestrated by China, took to Twitter immediately after the decision was announced. He gushed his support for Abe, including this whirlwind of circular logic:

The left wing is against [the new policy], so it is a correct policy. Also, any policies that China and Korea are against, are usually correct. Policies that places like China or Korea approve of are always wrong. Thus, it is correct.

But, this all seems to be backfiring.

Abe’s assault backfires

The same day the commercial aired, thousands of high school students came home to find a letter from the Japanese military waiting for them, inviting them to consider a career in the SDF.

Sending invitations to high (and sometimes middle) school students around this time of year is standard procedure for the Japanese military. But this year, these youngsters are taking to Twitter, posting images of the letters. Most of these tweets are expressing either terror, or suspicion at the almost too-perfect timing of recent events.

Indeed, the one-two-three punch of the announcement, the commercial, and the letters on the same day seems to have provoked an anger which has long been dormant in Japan’s youth. At long last, the kids might just be ready to fight back.

Recently, middle and high school students have been passing around chain messages on social media, inviting each other out to local protests. Instead of opposing Abe’s move from a political or legalistic standpoint, they are largely based in anger and fear.

After all, the prospect of bleeding to death in a jungle before you can legally buy cigarettes is a terrifying one. Many also worry that because of Japan’s rapidly aging population, if something were to happen, the military would have to institute a draft.

Kids in the balance

For years, the Japanese left has struggled to motivate young people. Even after the nuclear disasters of 2011, the average age of anti-nuke demonstrations seemed to hover around 40. Instead, youth traditionally have leaned toward either apathy or nationalism: The aforementioned warmonger Tamogami was a runaway favourite among the 20-30 set in the 2014 Tokyo governor elections. But now that the looming reality of war has been forced upon them, the youth seem to be changing their minds. It is too early to tell, but some organizers seem optimistic that this may be a sign that the tides are beginning to turn.

On the other hand, perhaps Abe’s ad campaign will work. Perhaps enough brave young men will volunteer to die, and in the event of conflict, no draft will be needed. And it could very well be, as Abe promises, that there never will be a conflict: that his reinterpretation of the constitution will serve as a “deterrent”, and actually “reduce the possibility of being dragged into a war”.

But he seems to be having a hard time convincing Japan’s youth of that.

California-born, Tokyo-based Dexter Thomas, Jr is a scholar of hip-hop and contemporary culture at Cornell University. He is finishing his book on Japanese hip-hop this year.

Follow him on Twitter: @dexdigi