The first time 22-year-old Akiko Hirayama stepped on board a navy ship, she was transfixed by the hardware.
“I was so amazed by all the torpedoes and missiles on the ship and its labyrinthine layout,” said Hirayama. “I’d never seen anything like that before.”
Hirayama, a former airport security guard now aged 23, had swung by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF) public festival out of curiosity. Six months later, devastating floods submerged her hometown in Okayama prefecture in western Japan. Moved by how Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) helped her family and friends during the relief operations, Hirayama decided to join up.
With more than 300,000 personnel, the JSDF was the world’s eighth most-powerful military in 2018, according to an armed forces strength ranking site globalfirepower.com. Formed after World War II to defend Japanese territory, its visibility has grown in recent years amid escalating tensions with North Korea and China.
The JSDF is — perhaps controversially — adding new units, ships and aircraft to meet those threats, but it also faces a challenge from within: A shrinking population.
“In the international arena, many people think that North Korea or China is the bigger threat to Japan,” said Robert Eldridge, an author and expert on US-Japan military relations. “But it’s the demographics that pose a bigger challenge.”
Japan’s population is expected to fall from 124 million to 88 million by 2065. Faced with the prospect of having fewer potential recruits, the JSDF is accepting a wider age range of candidates. Previously, recruits had to be under 27 years old, but now anyone over 18 and up to 32 years old can join.