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COLUMN ONE : Military in Japan Gets No Respect : Despite a huge defense budget, the formidable Self-Defense Forces are restricted by the constitution and society's ambivalence. Few young people want to enlist.


TOKYO — A seven-minute walk away from the riotous and affluent youth culture of the Shibuya entertainment district, Capt. Yasuo Yamashita sits at his steel desk in a small room on the fifth floor of a drab office building.

He has the look of somebody who has been waiting an unbearable length of time for the phone to ring or the door to swing open.

Yamashita is a recruiting officer for the Japanese military. Things are awfully slow these days, he confides, and getting slower. Here in this strategic center of the most populous city in the world, he signs up four or five people in a good month, mostly high school dropouts, to serve their country.

The business of enticing the brightest and best young Japanese into taking up arms has been a losing proposition ever since the atomic bombs of 1945 ended World War II. A stunned Japan adopted a post-war "peace constitution," forever renouncing the sovereign right to have a military.

Some legal tinkering by politicians, however, allowed the creation in 1954 of what is euphemistically called the "Self-Defense Forces (SDF)." That military now has grown into a formidable fighting machine authorized to keep more than a quarter-million ground troops, sailors and airmen in uniform. Pacifist Japan's defense budget can be calculated, depending on fluctuating currency exchange rates, as the third, fourth or fifth highest in the world--in the ballpark with France and Britain.

But to Yamashita's chagrin, Japanese society tries its darndest to pretend the Self-Defense Forces aren't really out there. His recruiting is handicapped by this lack of public acceptance, as well as unattractive housing and benefits. And prospects soon may worsen as the number of Japanese in the right age group declines and a less-threatening Soviet Union may soon rob the military of its main sense of purpose.

The public's ambivalent attitude about the military is shared by the government, as evidenced by Japan's belated response Aug. 29 to the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Officials are now frantically trying to put together a team of 100 volunteer medical workers to send to the gulf because it was deemed "unconstitutional" to tap the well-trained Self-Defense Forces, even for noncombat personnel.

Defense Agency Chief Yozo Ishikawa, according to news reports, was excluded from Cabinet deliberations on American requests that Japan join other allies in projecting some kind of military presence, even a symbolic one, in the peace-keeping effort.

Instead, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu declared to the world that his country would stand by its dedication to pacifist commercialism.

Since that initial response, however, several leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have urged the government to reconsider current constitutional interpretations and last Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Misoji Sakamoto announced that such a re-examination of the constitution was being considered.

Japan, which imports 70% of its oil from the Middle East, is not barred by its constitution from providing logistical support for American soldiers digging in to defend Japan's national interests, Kaifu said. The figure on the table now is $1 billion.

Back at home, military personnel are frustrated, perhaps demoralized, but long conditioned to resigning themselves to a pariah status. Consider Yamashita, the recruiting officer. He wears a business suit and tie to the office.

"We're out on the front lines, the contact point with the public," he said. "A lot of people might think it was strange if we wore uniforms."

To make matters worse, Yamashita must now battle adverse demographic trends as well as social stigma. The population of 18-year-olds is about to peak at 1.05 million and is projected to fall below 900,000 by the mid-1990s. With the domestic economy expanding rapidly and creating a shortage of unskilled labor, the unpopular military gets short shrift.

Already, the army cannot fill one out of every four authorized positions in its lower enlisted ranks, according to the 1989 Defense White Paper. Last year, the Defense Agency had to lower its recruiting goal by 13%. This year, the upper age limit was raised from 25 to 27. A proposal is in the works to reconfigure the structure of the forces around fewer ground troops.

"The Self-Defense Forces still aren't accepted by the public," Yamashita said. "It would make my job much easier if there was greater recognition, but many young people are simply opposed to us. Their teachers are against us. The opposition politicians are against us."

Graduates of the National Defense Academy are increasingly reneging on military careers--in March, 60 of the 425 graduating cadets opted for careers in the private sector. There is no penalty for refusing commissions, but it was almost unheard of until a few years ago.

"The SDF's social purpose has become so ambiguous that students no longer feel a sense of purpose in the service," an academy officer recently told the newspaper Yomiuri.

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