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How Japanese and American Societies Are Different: Learning from the Japanese and American Air Forces

November 25, 2014  Nori Katagiri

Japanese and American civilians regard their respective armed forces' in markedly different ways. While American servicemembers wear their uniforms proudly in public and enjoy nationwide respect, Japan's Self-Defense Forces personnel avoid being publicly associated with their occupation. Dr. Nori Katagiri, a professor at the United Sates Air Force Air War College, explores how Japanese and U.S. societies relate to their militaries, and suggests that what the world sees as Japan's militarization is, in fact, Japan shifting its political stance from left to center.

It has been five years since I began teaching at Air War College. Along the way, I have gained some new insights and experiences. One of these perspectives comes from the opportunity to observe some of the major similarities and differences, as well as strengths and weaknesses, of both the Japanese and American air forces.

Among the international fellows from over 40 nations who study at Air War College each year a Colonel from Japan's Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF), who normally spend a year in a seminar that I teach. Although I sense that there are still many more things that staff colleges of JASDF and the U.S. Air Force can do together, I also acknowledge that there has been some progress in the past few years.

In my line of work, I often get to supervise Master's papers written by Japanese colonels, and have the chance to observe how Japanese fellows communicate with their foreign counterparts in English and with local Japanese residents. There are also many opportunities for me to learn on the school field trip to Japan each spring. I take over a dozen senior American military officers to places like Japan and Taiwan, visiting several government agencies and military bases there.

This sort of exposure provides a unique opportunity for many civilians who teach here at Air War College. For me, the first couple of years of teaching in particular have been a solid learning experience. This work environment often forces me to think about the nature of the relationship between civilian societies and armed forces.

In this article, I will explore how societies in Japan and the United States relate themselves to the armed forces in their respective countries. Of course, such an analysis is nothing new, as many scholars have conducted comparative research in this respect. Yet I might be able to offer some unique perspectives.

As mentioned last month, I will give a lecture in Tokyo on December 19 at a workshop sponsored by the International Geopolitical Institute in Japan. I would be delighted to take up questions associated with points raised in this article, so I would like to encourage many of the readers here to attend it.

American Society and American Military

One of the best sources of information on the relationship between society and military can be found in the academic literature of civil-military relations. There are several themes in the American literature. Among them is a perspective that looks at differences in society's attitude toward the military during, and after, the Cold War.

That is, scholars commonly argue that during the Cold War, experiences of rivalry with the Soviet Union, the Korean War, and Vietnam had an effect of making American people feel generally close to the military. In contrast, after the Cold War, in part because they no longer faced a decisive security threat from the Soviet Union, the distance between society and the military widened.

Outsiders who did not spend much time in the United States during the Cold War may find it difficult to attest to this comparison. I, too, see things differently. In fact, I find that American society and military are still close even now. Today, American culture and institutions pay much respect to its armed forces in general. Looking from outside the United States, one finds American military personnel to be surprisingly cherished in their society and can easily encounter several examples to support the view.

For one, military personnel are eligible for various discount offers at many facilities, including museums and local restaurants. Retirees also receive good care and treatment. There are military bases in every state in the country, such as Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, which I had the chance to visit last month. As seen in the pictures below, the base boasts public displays of some of its former aircraft.

Public display of former aircraft at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. (Photo credits: author)

As another example, people readily pay respect to those in uniform and show appreciation everywhere servicemembers go. The close relationship between society and military is reflected in politics as well. According to Veterans Campaign, a nonprofit organization in the U.S., out of a total of 864 candidates who ran for office on November 4, 183 candidates had some kind of prior military experience. This high rate of involvement in politics suggests that there is a relatively strong relationship between military, politics, and economy.

Moreover, servicemembers who return home from wars often receive a passionate welcome at local parades. Additionally, we commonly hear flight attendants publicly thanking them for their service at airports and before take-off inside the aircraft.

In many ways these institutions are unique to American culture. Yet I do not argue that they are culturally superior to others. Neither do I maintain that other cultures should become like these. One may find it odd to even compare American and Japanese cultures, which are quite different anyway. Yet this comparison allows us to see different aspects of these societies and appreciate how strong the sense of belonging is in American society relative to other countries. It is also possible to say that this very support from society for the military is one of the reasons why the U.S. military is ranked as the most powerful in the world.

Japanese Society and the Self Defense Forces

In Japan, things are quite the opposite. The educational system, still heavily influenced by postwar ideology, makes little room for SDF members to breathe in public. Despite changes in recent years, the atmosphere in Japan is densely shaped by mass media that deeply questions the fundamental need of the SDF for national security.

While one can easily spot uniformed servicemembers in public places like grocery stores and college campuses in the United States, in Japan, that's a rare sight. SDF members wear civilian clothes when they take trains on their commute to work, just like any other commuter. They change into military uniform only after they get to the workplace. Not surprisingly, when they get off work at the end of the day, they change into civilian clothes once again before they get on the train. This is only one of several examples where we see unhealthy customs associated with the SDF.

Japanese society is such that as soon as I call the custom "unhealthy," it gives ammunition for people to label someone like me as "conservative" and "right-wing." Looking from outside Japan, my perspective would simply be viewed as normal, or "centrist" so to speak; certainly, it should not qualify for a "right-wing" label. In Japan, however, much of what I argue in general would be viewed in public with skepticism and may belong to a minority perspective.

Uneasy Warriors: Gender, Memory, and Popular Culture in the Japanese Army. University of California Press. ISBN: 9780520247956

One of the best scholarly works on this social sentiment in Japan can be found in an excellent book written by Professor Sabine Frühstück of the University of California, Santa Barbara, called Uneasy Warriors. The book is a remarkable analysis of the SDF, written after the professor spent some time in training with SDF members. It provides first-hand knowledge of how SDF members live and interact within society. I like this book a lot and use it in my regional studies course on Northeast Asia. Unfortunately, because there are few academic opportunities to learn about the SDF here in the United States, I do not see many other political science professors assign this book in their courses.

Although the SDF is the chief national institution for defending the country from foreign threats, few in the country see that as its main function. A public opinion survey conducted by the Prime Minister's office in 2012 shows that Japanese people see SDF's primary mission to be disaster relief operations and related functions, followed by national defense. Certainly, this may reflect the public sentiment immediately after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown triple crisis, but it also shows that more people believe that the SDF should carry shovels rather than guns.

I argue that few Japanese would benefit from having a weak defense force, which is common knowledge for most nations of the world. The SDF needs more public support from the population to better serve Japan and its people. At the same time, I do not think a stronger SDF would necessarily pose a threat to other countries, as some may fear. If Japan wished to pose a threat to its neighbors, it would have to do much more than simply strengthen the SDF. At this point in time, there would be very little public understanding and support for this sort of action.

As I wrote elsewhere, the weak SDF may be one of the reasons why Japan has been getting an increasing number of foreign incursions into its territorial waters and air space in the last few months. Of course, another explanation maybe related to China's growing military capability in the East China Sea, but I find it difficult to rule out the role played by the SDF in extending deterrence to guarantee Japanese sovereignty.

How to Understand Japan's "Going Rightward"

The reality is that there are many constraints on the actions of the SDF: constitutional, legislative, financial, and operational.

Yet many outside Japan see things quite differently. Foreign papers tend to focus on issues like Prime Ministers' visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and comfort women, and depict Japan as undergoing a process of militarization. Several others take the opportunity to suggest that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is speeding up the militarization process. Contrarily, I see Japan to be only moving from the left to the center. Of course, security scholars who have lived in Japan for a few years and speak the language often understand the situation correctly.. But the number of such scholars is small and they are getting pushed out by those who see otherwise. There is widespread misunderstanding across the world.

As I wrote in the August issue of my contribution to JBpress, few political science scholars find Japan to be a significant academic subject after the end of the Cold War, for understandable reasons. Thus, the number of scholars who understand the country is smaller than before, and I suspect that this is one of the reasons why Japan's national security is portrayed differently than most Japanese see it.

It is also true that Japan, its people and government alike, has been unable to respond to and address these depictions appropriately as its international image continues to worsen. It is important for the government to address its basic right to self defense, while making sure to state that it has no intent to carry out aggression over its neighbors, as is often feared overseas.

Views expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air War College.

The author has a doctorate in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, has researched counter-terrorism and strategic communications at RAND Corporation, and currently teaches at the United States Air Force Air War College at Maxwell AFB.

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