SDF plays numbers game as Kishida pushes for strong Japan

The Self-Defense Forces suffer from a chronic manpower shortage and struggle to recruit new members as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pushes ahead with plans to fundamentally improve the defense capabilities of the nation.

A major problem is the declining birth rate, which has sharply reduced the number of residents eligible for recruitment.

Some experts have challenged the SDF’s recruitment tactics, saying the Department of Defense interferes in the lives of eligible individuals to obtain personal information without their consent.

When the GSDF held an online internship session in August last year, a recruiter displayed a tablet screen to explain to students that the organization is not just involved in disaster relief and training tasks, but also international contributions to ensure Japan’s safety and security.

“We want you to know how diverse our work is,” the recruiter said.

When students asked about job descriptions, another member said, “You can contribute to your country and to society. You can see the difference when you compare us with other local public officials.

The SDF has embarked on a major recruitment campaign due to a severe shortage of manpower, according to a source close to the Ministry of Defence.

The full share of the SDF for this exercise is 247,154. The figure is determined by a law which legitimized the creation of the Ministry of Defense and which specifies the number of members necessary to deal with contingencies.

The current staff figure stands at 233,341, approximately 14,000 below the target.

The number of Japanese between the ages of 18 and 26 eligible to join the SDF fell from approximately 17.43 million in fiscal year 1994 to 11.05 million in fiscal year 2018, a decline of nearly 40% caused by the decline in the birth rate and the aging of the population.

The ministry raised the age limit for SDF recruits to 32 this fiscal year to bring the number of eligible residents to about 18.81 million.

Although around 18.25 million people meet the age requirement in this financial year, this figure will likely drop to around 13.73 million in 26 years and around 11.93 million in 46 years.

With the shrinking recruiting pool, the number of applicants fell from 114,488 in fiscal year 2012 to 84,825 in fiscal year 2021.

A ministry official noted a widely held view that being in the SDF is a demanding job. Another cited the growing number of people who prefer to work in their region.

“Parents were visibly reluctant to encourage their offspring to join the SDF after Russia invaded Ukraine,” an SDF member said.

Between fiscal years 2019 and 2023, the department raised the mandatory retirement age for colonels, captains, and lower-ranking personnel for each rank by one year.

The department also increased the maximum number of retired SDF staff members eligible for re-appointment from 30 in fiscal year 2001 to 1,200 in fiscal year 2022 to ensure the required number of members.

However, this was only seen as a stopgap measure, according to a senior SDF official.

The ministry plans to request an increase in its budget to strengthen its workforce.

He did not reveal the actual number of SDF personnel in his fiscal year 2023 budget request ahead of revisions later this year to three key national security policy documents, which could dramatically change the policy of Japan’s highly restrictive and exclusively defensive post-war security.

But he was keen to promote measures to prevent harassment and refer to a better working environment for female members of the SDF in a bid to expand the recruitment and appointment of female staff.

This stems from Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada’s instruction to the ministry to open a special investigation after a former SDF member claimed he was sexually assaulted during training.

“We have taken a firm stance to avoid negative effects affecting discussions on defense capacity building,” a senior ministry official said.


Yet some critics argue that the Department of Defense obtains personal information about eligible residents from local governments without their consent.

Records show that 962 of the nation’s 1,741 municipalities in fiscal year 2021 provided the names, addresses, gender and dates of birth of eligible residents to the department following requests under the Self-Defense Forces Act. and related enforcement orders.

The department apparently provides pamphlets and guidelines for explanatory meetings to 18 and 22 year olds who are up to recruitment standards.

The number of municipalities complying with the ministry’s request continues to increase every year, which a ministry official said helps the SDF better understand the public.

However, the Hyogo Bar Association raised questions about the method, saying it violated Article 13 of the Constitution, which guarantees individuals the right to privacy. He also cited the legislation in place to protect personal information.

In June, the association sent a series of recommendations to municipalities in the prefecture, calling on local officials to exclude data on residents who do not wish to provide their personal information.

The organization also said local governments submit personal information about citizens in digital form without their consent, which it called problematic from a privacy perspective. The issue is further complicated by the fact that there is no system for excluding the disclosure of personal information at the request of residents.

“As long as SDF members are recruited on an open-entry basis, viewing personal information should be restricted,” said Hiroshi Kito, professor emeritus at Sophia University in Tokyo, who is also a historical demographer. “It’s a delicate method, and it should be stopped, if possible.”

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