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Sunday, April 22, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Imagine all the soldiers and sailors singing and dancing in harmony


With the expected passage of a bill setting procedures for a referendum to revise the Constitution, the Japanese people are going to have to think carefully about what sort of changes they want made to the charter. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has staked his political career on revising the Constitution, but citizens seem unsure as to whether or not they want to scrap it.

Just as Abe's Liberal Democratic Party has managed to keep its majority for half a century because people think you don't fix something that ain't broke, they also figure you don't need to change a Constitution that's kept them out of war since the last one. A Kyodo News survey found that twice as many respondents want to keep the war-renouncing Article 9 as those who want to scrap it. And 54.6 percent said that they want to retain the Constitution's ban on Japan's involvement in collective defense, a matter Abe wants reconsidered.

Becoming an independent military power is central to Abe's vision of a "beautiful country," but since the early 1950s Japan has lived with a contradiction: a self-defense force whose existence violates Article 9 in letter if not in spirit. Some say it should be changed to acknowledge reality, but supporters of Article 9 have a point. As long as it exists, Japanese lawmakers have to debate openly any troop dispatch. Without it, military actions become easier to initiate, but something else would have to change before Japan became a military power of any standing, namely the people's conception of what their military is for.

Three years ago the Maritime Self-Defense Forces raised eyebrows with their "Seaman Ship" recruiting commercial, a 15-second TV spot showing young uniformed sailors singing and dancing in formation on the deck of a ship. It's on YouTube and still pops up on overseas Web sites as a prime example of Weird Japan.

Having been conditioned by decades of "hey sailor" jokes and the Village People's "In the Navy," some Western commentators have inferred a homosexual subtext to the ad, especially given that one of the catch copy phrases is "For Love!," but anyone who lives here will see the musical approach as the quickest way to grab the attention of youth. The lettering uses the same font as that used by SMAP -- the famous pop group -- and the message is simple and uncontroversial: "Heiwa ga suki desu! (I love peace)."

The MSDF's latest commercial is more elaborate, and when it premiered more than a month ago the gossip shows had a great time deconstructing the comic-book graphics and copy, which is delivered in the crisp, hyperbolic tones heard on typical Showa-era (1926-1989) superhero TV series. This angle makes perfect sense since the task of the MSDF is protecting citizens, and not necessarily from potential enemies: "Navel escorts!," "Patrol jets!," "Rescue Work!" the announcer says with blood-pumping vigor as the young, good-looking professionals give the thumbs-up or strike a ludicrously earnest "guts' pose."

The Air Self-Defense Force takes a softer approach with an ad that shows a little boy using his model airplane to help a little girl retrieve her hat, which has been blown by the wind into the branches of a tree. The boy grows up to be an ASDF pilot.

Americans will find this corny, but recruiting ads in the States also appeal to sentiment, it's just a tougher brand of sentiment ("Be all you can be"). In recent years the appeal has been more direct, less lofty. Accompanied by heavy metal guitars and cut like Michael Bay blockbusters, the newer ads exploit the image of the military that's been foisted on young people through the popular arts. It was recently revealed that recruiters now target computer-game freaks. The most visceral reality of the military -- i.e., shooting and being shot at -- would seem to be the one aspect of a soldier's life that recruits would want to avoid, but even with a war on many young Americans sign up because they seek adventure, and the ads tap into that desire.

There's no denying that pop culture helps sell the U.S. military. In the movie "Jarhead," marines about to leave for the Persian Gulf watch "Apocalypse Now" and hoot with glee during the scene where American helicopters destroy a village. They know the scene by heart.

The SDF also cooperates on movies and TV shows for promotional purposes, but in line with what the Japanese citizenry sees as the SDF's role these productions tend to have a rescue rather than a national defense theme (unless, of course, Japan is being defended from Godzilla). Straightforward military action movies like "Aegis," in which a rogue MSDF faction commandeers an escort ship and threatens Tokyo with a nuclear bomb, are the exception and will never give Hollywood any cause for concern.

Or South Korea. A prerequisite for making convincing military-themed movies is a convincing military. Because Korea has mandatory national service, their military-themed movies run the gamut from gory battle epics to antimilitary-mindset dramas. In Japan, what you get is "Yamato," an incredibly expensive movie in which all the heroes die pointlessly on a sinking battleship. Article 9 seems to have had the same effect on pop culture that it's had on Japan's defense posture: If you want good war movies, look to America. Even Clint Eastwood made a better one from a Japanese perspective than any local director.

The biggest obstacle to Abe's dream of becoming a military power is the Japanese people's objection to placing its soldiers in harm's way, as demonstrated by the critical reaction to the governor of Saitama's comment that SDF personnel "practice killing people to maintain peace." Like it or not, killing people is at least one of the things soldiers are expected to do. As far as maintaining peace goes, however, if Iraq is any indication maybe singing and dancing are more effective.



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