The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are not ready for war. This might come as a jarring surprise for foreign defense analysts, many of whom hold the JSDF in high esteem. Just this past November the JSDF received remarkably good news: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announced his plans for a new defense budget that increases defense spending to 2 percent of Japan’s GDP by 2027. This budget would not only transform a “pacifist” Japan into the world’s third largest military spender after China and the United States, but also dramatically expand Japan’s arsenal of cyber and kinetic capabilities, including the unprecedented acquisition of cruise missiles for retaliatory or preemptive strikes.
But Kishida’s spending plan masks a glaring problem rotting away the core capabilities of the JSDF. The JSDF is critically short of soldiers and sailors to perform the many tasks it already has.
Compared to its peers on the Asian continent, the JSDF is a relatively small military. On paper, the JSDF possesses an authorized strength of approximately 247,154 servicemembers. Since 2014, however, the JSDF has consistently missed its recruitment goals. As of this past year, the JSDF’s ground, air, and maritime branches lack a combined 16,000 personnel. This shortfall has had immediate repercussions on the ability of the JSDF to operate as intended.
Nowhere is the JSDF’s lack of personnel more pronounced than in the Maritime Self Defense Forces (MSDF). Worryingly, some MSDF warships lack their full complement of sailors. This has forced over-taxed sailors to take on extra duties, which consequently increases the risk of accidents due to personnel fatigue. Accepting that its recruitment shortfalls are unlikely to improve soon, the MSDF is trying to mitigate this problem by designing new warships for smaller crew sizes. But this is not a guaranteed solution, as seen by the woeful record of the United States Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship.
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Why is it that the JSDF cannot recruit enough personnel? While in no way exhaustive, there are at least three major factors undermining the JSDF’s recruitment efforts and capacity to retain personnel. Foremost of these is Japan’s rapidly shrinking population and birthrate. Since 2010, Japan’s population has steadily declined from a high of 128 million. However, Japan’s total fertility rate, the average number of children a woman may have in their lifetime, had already dropped below the threshold for population replacement in 1974. A combination of the consequences of rising living standards, widespread discrimination against working mothers in Japan, and a shortage of childcare options all help explain this phenomenon.
More relevant for the JSDF is the fact that the population of those most likely to join, 18-26 year-olds, peaked long ago. In 1994, this key demographic stood at 17.43 million. Since then, the number of 18-26 year-olds has precipitously declined to around 9 million by 2020 and is projected to fall as low as 7.2 million by 2040. Put bluntly, Japan’s population of young men and women of prime military service age is rapidly declining. This problem directly relates to the second challenge for the JSDF’s recruitment efforts.
As an all-volunteer force, the JSDF must somehow convince an ever-shrinking pool of eligible young applicants that a military career is desirable. In Japan’s worker-starved economy, this is a tall order. While Japanese politicians are more willing than ever to contemplate an assertive defense policy, pacifism and an aversion to military service remain deeply entrenched in postwar Japanese society.
Historically, Japanese society has perceived the JSDF as an undesirable career choice, particularly when compared against a private sector that has offered comparatively better pay and work conditions. Despite Japan’s current lackluster economy and acute wage stagnation, this dynamic has barely changed.
Finally, the JSDF struggles to provide sufficient incentives for young adults who want to begin families, but do not want to deal with the privations of base life or long deployments. Although the JSDF is currently investing heavily in ameliorating this issue, its efforts have notably struggled to attract female recruits or make them feel welcomed.
For the JSDF to meet its recruitment and staffing quotas, it must attract and retain skilled female personnel. However, the JSDF, like other employers in Japan, has only had lackluster success in its efforts. As of March 2022, there were roughly 19,000 women in the JSDF, who comprised 8.3 percent of all servicemembers. This figure sits between those of neighboring Asian democracies, South Korea (6.8 percent) and Taiwan (around 10 percent). Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) wishes to increase female personnel to 12 percent of the JSDF’s personnel by 2030. But even this underwhelming ambition will likely be difficult to achieve so long as the JSDF does not ensure its female employees are safe and respected.
In September 2022, a former female JSDF officer went public about her experience being sexually assaulted by her colleagues and the complete indifference shown by her superiors. This incident prompted at least 100 further allegations of abuse by former and current JSDF servicemembers. Although Japan’s MOD recently punished nine servicemembers tied to the incident in an unprecedented move, it has not demonstrated how it will suppress a prevalent JSDF culture of misogyny and sexual violence. So long as this remains the case, the JSDF will struggle to not only recruit but retain critical female personnel that will be essential for its long-term viability.
The JSDF’s inability to recruit sufficient personnel undermines the credibility of Japan’s defense capabilities at a time of a perceived rise in the likelihood of war breaking out with China over Taiwan. If such a conflict occurs, it is likely that it will be costly in human life. This fact is substantiated by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which has demonstrated the vulnerability of modern warships to missiles and dispelled any doubts about the lethality of 21st century ground combat.
The JSDF must be prepared for protracted and attritional warfare. But the JSDF’s inability to meet its recruitment quotas in peacetime bodes ill for the JSDF’s ability to conduct prolonged military operations. Kishida’s new cruise missiles and improved cyber capabilities will not solve this dilemma.