Japan is in an interesting geostrategic position. It has a constitution that states that the “Japanese people forever renounce war” but it lies in a neighbourhood in which war is unlikely to be able to be renounced. Across the Sea of Japan lies North Korea which has been known to kidnap Japanese chefs from time to time as well as occasionally lobbing over missiles across Japanese airspace. And only slightly further away is China, the second largest economy in the world and by far and away the dominant regional power. And 2020 has seen China flexing its muscles throughout the entire Indo-Pacific region: Japanese planes and ships have just chased a Chinese submarine out of Japanese territorial waters.
In this environment a strong military is probably a good idea (Japan’s constitution notwithstanding). But unfortunately for Japan, decades of low fertility rates, few babies and a declining population has left it with a gaping hole in its military personnel compliment. According to the Economist, the Self-Defence Forces have not met their recruiting targets since 2014. In 2018, only 72 per cent of its planned personnel goal was reached. These years of shortfall have resulted in a military that is 8 per cent lower than it budgets for (227,000 troops rather than 247,000). At the lowest ranks the shortfall is even worse: at over 25 per cent.
While low pay, harsh conditions and the limited prestige of soldiers in Japan are all reasons why SDF recruiters face such a hard time reaching their targets, but these reasons are common to most countries’ recruiters. What is unique to Japan though is its lack of young people: the number of Japanese aged between 18 and 26 is in free fall. In 1994 there were 17 million Japanese in this age cohort. Today there are only 11 million. By 2050 this number will have sunk to fewer than 8 million. As the Defence Ministry admits, finding enough young people to fill the SDF’s ranks is “an imminent challenge”. No wonder then that Robert Eldridge, a former US military official and writer on Japanese demography and the armed forces, has stated that “Demographic change is not just an economic issue, it’s a national-defence issue”.
So what are the SDF’s options? Just like the Japanese private sector it is turning to AI and robotics. The government has announced plans to develop unmanned aircraft and submarines, originally for surveillance but eventually to include strike capability. Unfortunately, these weapon systems require skilled engineers to operate them – the very people that the SDF already has trouble attracting.
Alternatively the SDF can tolerate older soldiers. Two years ago it raised the maximum age for new recruits from 26 to 32. This year it started to raise the retirement age for senior officers and those past retirement age are encouraged to work for reduced pay. The older military personnel can focus maintenance, logistics and training, leaving younger troops for more frontline roles. That is the plan anyway.
Finally, the SDF is also seeking to attract more female recruits. Currently 7 per cent of Japan’s armed forces are female, compared to an average 11 per cent average among NATO countries. By 2030 the SDF hopes to be 9 per cent female. In recent years the high command has allowed females to fly fighter jets, to be in a tank crew. Soon they will be allowed to join submarine crews. At the same time the defence ministry speaks of family-friendly perks such as on-site daycare centres to attract more female recruits.
But in the end the SDF is fishing in a pool of potential recruits which is shrinking each year. Just add it to the demographic headwinds that Japan must deal with.