JAPAN'S UNKNOWN SOLDIERS

Etajima, The Officer Candidate School of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), is a demanding military academy. Awakened by a bugle call at 6 a.m., midshipmen throw on uniforms and race outside to form up and be corrected by "discipline officers." Midshipmen, in fact, run everywhere. "We steal their time," says an assistant discipline officer. The midshipmen study not only social science and English, but navigation, ship-handling and even infantry tactics. Before they are commissioned as officers, midshipmen must swim--breaststroke, in formation--more than 12 kilometers in the waters of Etajima Bay. The grueling nine-hour ordeal is broken only for lunch, when the swimmers are handed rice balls from a boat. "We are trying to educate future leaders with the spirit of sea warriors," says Capt. Taisei Tamai, the deputy superintendent of Etajima.

But when they leave for a five-month cruise after a year of training, the men and women of Etajima are not joining a real navy--not quite. Capt. Tamai says he does not use the word "navy." "It's always the Maritime Self-Defense Force. In Japan, 'navy' means great Imperial Navy. After the war, we had the words 'old navy,' but we are not to be called the 'new navy.' There is," he says, "the important question of the Constitution."

Indeed, Japan's "Peace Constitution," which went into effect in 1947, expressly forbids the Japanese from ever having armed forces. Nonetheless, the JMSDF--like its counterpart ground and air self-defense forces created in the 1950s--is a significant power. With 50 destroyers and 16 submarines, the JMSDF rates as the fourth most powerful navy in the world after the U.S., British and Russian navies. Overall, Japan ranks among the top three or four countries in defense spending.

For years, Japanese dealt with this apparent contradiction by not talking about it much, at least publicly. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces kept a very low profile. Japanese troops were used mostly in natural disasters and accidents, mounting rescue operations after earthquakes and plane crashes. But then, in the early 1990s, Japan began sending the SDF on peacekeeping missions abroad, to places like Cambodia and Mozambique. In 1993 North Korea test-launched its Nodong-1 missile (range 1,000 to 1,300km) into the Sea of Japan. The provocation forced Japan to regard the Pyongyang regime as a serious threat. Public opinion, traditionally antimilitarist, began to shift. Even Japan's Communist Party dropped its opposition to the SDF at a party congress in January.

The North Korean threat--together with the 9/11 terrorists attacks on America and China's buildup of its forces--is pushing Japan to face up to the thorny question of just how much of a military it really wants. After 9/11, Japan allowed the JMSDF to send supply ships, escorted by warships, to fuel Coalition ships in the Indian Ocean. The government is now expanding the SDF's role and pondering changes that will make it more like regular armed forces. After the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Japan joined the U.S.-led Coalition, albeit in a modest role. Last year the Japanese Diet voted to allow the SDF to perform humanitarian assignments in Iraq, though only in so-called noncombat areas. In January Japan sent a 550-man SDF unit to As Samawah in southern Iraq. Public opinion is split over the dispatch. In February a poll showed 48.3 percent in support of the troop deployment, 45.1 opposed. Asked if Japan should withdraw its forces if a soldier was killed or wounded, 54 percent said yes.

In March of this year, Japan set up a 300-man "special operations group," a counterterror force with the ninja-fighting skills used by the U.S. Delta Force and British SAS commandos. Last week the Japanese Defense Agency issued a white paper urging the transformation of the SDF into a "more functional force" to cope with the new threats. The paper emphasized better "mobility and flexibility" and warned that Pyongyang is likely to increase the range of its missiles. Perhaps more significant in the long run, the paper pointed to China's defense buildup and high-tech modernization. Sending forces to help build a democratic regime in Iraq was in the interest of Japan's self-defense, the paper argued. The Middle East supplies 90 percent of Japan's crude oil.

"The Self-Defense Forces are at a 'turning point'," editorialized the Yomiuri Shimbun, the nation's largest daily, which called the Defense Agency's white paper "a step in the right direction." Still, the Japanese people are not sure how far they want to go. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi seems determined to upgrade and transform the SDF. But his popularity, once more than 80 percent in the polls, has dropped to a low of 40.7 percent in recent weeks. Koizumi was roundly criticized by opposition parties for kowtowing to President George W. Bush at the G8 Summit in June. Without consulting the Diet, he agreed to continue to deploy Japanese troops with the multinational force in Iraq after June 30. His critics say he is trying to stretch the Japanese Constitution to the breaking point.

Indeed, a serious discussion has begun about amending the Constitution to recognize a military role for Japan. In polls, about half the Japanese people say they want constitutional reform. Still, more than half--60 percent--want to keep the original Article 9 with its ban on force. "The real problem," says Takashi Tachibana, a well-known political commentator, "is that the Japanese people may want to give the SDF a certain status and have them make international contributions, but after so many postwar years of peace, they don't know or haven't seriously thought about what happens to their country when the Constitution is finally revised. They don't know what to expect."

The ambivalence and tension many Japanese feel about the military was written on the faces of six young JMSDF midshipmen interviewed by NEWSWEEK in mid-June. The cadets were all bright (one in 40 are accepted, often after graduating from the best Japanese universities), thoughtful and well-spoken. But they were divided and a little uncertain about their role as "sea warriors."

During his or her (13 of the 190 midshipmen are female) first week at Etajima, each midshipman is required to spend two hours in the academy museum, a massive Hellenic temple erected in 1936 by contributions from Imperial Japanese Navy officers. The museum is a shrine to military sacrifice. As the newcomer enters, he sees the scroll of the 4,031 men--one of every three graduates--killed in action between the founding of the academy in 1869 and the end of World War II. He learns of the 2,000 sailors who volunteered for the glory of joining a 77-man suicide mission in the Russo-Japanese War; he reads the eloquent last testimonial to duty of a young lieutenant trapped in a sunken submarine in 1910; he sees the cap Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi handed a sailor as a memento before he went down with his ship at the Battle of Midway in 1942. Then comes the really heart-rending drama: the two long galleries devoted to the members of "special attack," or kamikaze, units. Lining the walls are dozens of photos of kamikaze pilots (average age: 19.8) and the achingly moving scrolls they wrote, often in perfect calligraphy, a few in blood or on Japanese flags, ritualistically apologizing to their families for the crime of dying before their parents.

When the midshipmen emerge from the museum, "it's amazing how their expressions have changed," says Capt. Tamai. The students interviewed by NEWSWEEK were still a little awestruck three months after their first museum tours. "Before, I did not have that sense of mission. Now that I have seen it, I feel I belong to that tradition. This is something I have to carry on," said Kosuke Sato, 22. "I felt an aura," said Daisuke Hidaka, 22. "I was filled with a sense of mission and proud to join this tradition." But what mission, and what tradition, exactly? One midshipman, Kazuhiro Yoneshita, 27, observed that bushido (the way of the samurai) can "beautify" death. "I think during those days the government leaders used patriotism and bushido to make those youngsters die," said Yoneshita. "It should never, never be repeated in this country."

Asked if they saw them-selves as future officers in a real navy or in a self-defense force, the midshipmen shifted uneasily in their chairs. Could they imagine themselves in combat? Yes, said one--"against North Korea." (The North Koreans have in the past committed aggressive acts against Japan, including abducting Japanese citizens, and are the country's most obvious and pressing threat.) Others were more circumspect. "I know outsiders look at the JMSDF and call us the Japanese Navy," said Hidaka. "But I try to remind myself, we are not the navy. We are the MSDF. This is something I keep telling myself. I will defend the country, but I will not invade a country."

Midshipman Yoneshita, perhaps the most thoughtful of the group, said, "We are kind of caught between two conflicting ideas. We're taught here about the glorious and powerful Japanese Navy. At the same time, we're taught about the Japanese Constitution and law." According to a midlevel officer, the JMSDF itself is split between hawks who want to build up a real navy and those who want to stick with the Constitution.

The Japanese have long liked to copy--and improve on--the West. Etajima was modeled after a 19th-century British naval academy. The midshipmen are instructed in "gentlemanness," according to an official briefing. There is a lock of Adm. Horatio Nelson's hair in the museum and some midshipmen still play rugby. The main building, an elegant Georgian affair, was built by bricks imported from England. But the spirit is distinctly Japanese. The midshipmen scoff at the counterfeit martial-arts spirit of bushido portrayed in Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai" (five of the six cadets had seen the movie). Rather, they are moved by a spirit of self-discipline that is more subtle. Every night, before lights out, they are required to ponder "Five Reflections," still uttered in ancient Japanese: "Hast thou not gone against sincerity? Hast thou not felt ashamed of thy words and deeds? Hast thou not lacked vigor? Hast thou exerted all possible efforts? Hast thou not become slothful?" Humbling questions--and good training for any mission.

JAPAN'S UNKNOWN SOLDIERS | News