Looking Hot in Uniform: Japan Votes for Its Sexiest Sailors

Contest is a bid to boost recruitment to the nation's self-defense forces at a time of rising regional tensions

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Japan Maritime Self Defense Force

Lt. (jg) Nobuko Aoyama, P3-C pilot, is a contestant in the JMSDF's popularity contest

Amid aggressive territorial demands from China and growing debate over its pacifist constitution, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force knows just what it needs: a popularity contest.

The JMSDF has launched an online contest to pick the most popular male and female member of the naval service. Contestants include a sailor who boards suspected pirate ships off the coast of Somalia and the pilot of a patrol plane cruising the contested East China Sea.

Japan’s armed services have risen dramatically in public opinion polls since the earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan in 2011. The yearlong standoff with China over remote, uninhabited islands has boosted the naval service’s standing, as well.

Nonetheless, the Japanese public remains largely pacifist and the self-defense forces face continuing challenges to meet recruiting goals.

“Young people in Japan have a lot of options, and they don’t know much about the JMSDF,” says Lt. Cdr. Takashi Nobukuni, a JMSDF spokesman. “We’re hoping they will look at this and think, ‘That’s something I’d like to do.’”

The “Mr. & Ms. JMSDF” contest is aimed squarely at a young, technologically adept audience. Voters are asked to download a smart-phone app with professionally produced video profiles of each candidate and an interactive quiz about the JMSDF.

The six candidates were selected by JMSDF staff. No surprise, then, that all are relatively young and photogenic, with service occupations that would appear challenging or adventurous.

In addition to the P-3C pilot and boarding-crew member, the candidates include a submarine rescue diver, airborne electronics specialist, air traffic controller and shipboard navigator.

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The app has been downloaded more than 10,000 times since it launched last month, making it one of the most popular in Japan. More than 100,000 votes have been cast. The submarine diver (male) and ship navigator (female) lead each category.

For all its pacifist leanings, Japan maintains a formidable military. Its defense budget is the world’s fifth or sixth largest (depending on exchange rates and other factors). With more than 100 surface warships and close ties to the U.S. Navy, the JMSDF is considered among the top naval forces in the world.

Yet, Japan is in the midst of a wrenching debate over security issues. China’s defense budget has been rising for more than a decade and is more than double that of Japan. Beijing is pressing claims to a group of remote islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, and has begun operating modern warships close to Japan’s main islands.

Prime Minister Abe wants to boost Japan’s defense budget, ease restraints on the self-defense forces and amend the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9. But Abe’s first nine months in office have been devoted largely to economic issues, and opinion polls show tenuous public support for his defense agenda.

“There is more public awareness and acceptance of the self-defense forces than in the past due to the tensions with North Korea and China and the tsunami relief effort. But it’s still fairly low, and [the Japanese people] don’t want constitutional change or a vastly greater force,” says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, at Temple University, in Tokyo.

The “Mr. & Ms. JMSDF” contest was inspired by a JMSDF humanitarian assistance operation in the Philippines last year. Profiles of several JMSDF members were posted on the JMSDF website and generated thousands of generally positive comments in Japan’s busy social media. The contest winner will be featured in a lengthy video posted on the JMSDF website and social media and may take part in recruiting and public awareness campaigns.

If the contest is successful it could help reverse the lack of prestige that has plagued military service throughout Japan’s post-war period. But there could be another deterrent, says Dujarric: “It’s hard work.”

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