Journalist Rie Ogasawara won the Grand Prize (Fuji Seiji Prize) in the 15th Annual “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest for her essay, “The Grief Caused by Russia’s Invasion: Ukraine’s Devastation Can Occur in Japan.” Toshio Motoya spoke with Ogasawara, who works as representative of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) Personnel Treatment Improvement Association to promote better labor conditions, about Japanese national security issues and other topics.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today, and congratulations on winning the Grand Prize (Fuji Seiji Prize) in the 15th Annual “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest this year.
(O) Thank you very much.
(M) Your essay, “The Grief Caused by Russia’s Invasion: Ukraine’s Devastation Can Occur in Japan,” is a fantastic piece of writing that compares Japan to Ukraine and advocates for Japan to strengthen its security policy. When did you first hear about this contest?
(O) I was highly impressed by “Was Japan an Aggressor Nation?”, the essay that won Toshio Tamogami the Grand Prize in the first contest in 2008. I went to several of his speeches afterwards, but I never dreamed that I would someday receive the same prize. Society was greatly impacted by Tamogami’s essay because it inspired people to think about what really happened, which drew me to this wonderful contest.
(M) The content of Tamogami’s essay caused a huge outcry since he was chief of staff of the Air-Self Defense Force at that time, which brought the contest even more clout. Was this year your first entry?
(O) I actually submitted essays two years in a row. I didn’t win anything in 2021, so this time I focused on writing something more concrete.
(M) I’m impressed that you won the Grand Prize on your second try! Although you were influenced by Tamogami, I doubt you would have entered unless you had something you personally wanted to express. What originally inspired you to speak out?
(O) It stems from my recognition of the issues facing the JSDF. I formed the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) Personnel Treatment Improvement Association in 2014 and have been active since then. I am acquainted with many JSDF members who tell me about their lifestyles, working conditions, and the like. When the topic of strengthening the JSDF is raised, many people suggest enhancing their equipment or introducing new weapons like the F-35. But I believe we need a multifaceted approach that goes beyond equipment. There are fewer JSDF personnel today, causing a labor shortage that could weaken Japan’s national defense. We must offer better wages and conditions to increase their numbers. Unlike other professions, JSDF officials have to put their lives on the line if an emergency occurs. I don’t think young people will want to join unless there are specific benefits in addition to honor. The JSDF has no labor union and can’t negotiate with the national government. We started the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) Personnel Treatment Improvement Association so we could share their voices with the government, and we’ve made continuous efforts to improve labor conditions.
(M) What specific activities have you done?
(O) First, we submitted a petition to the National Diet asking to improve JSDF living environments. No repairs have been done on the many decrepit buildings where they reside. Even if it would be hard to pay them more, I thought the government should at least provide good places for them live. Initial responses were also delayed because of the lack of housing for emergency personnel. I discussed these issues with Member of the House of Councillors Masahisa Sato. Until 2021, we submitted multiple petitions requesting improvements to existing residences and new housing for emergency personnel. They have been steadily endorsed by many Diet members. Last year we had nearly 40 Diet members supporting this issue, including Governor of Ishikawa Prefecture Hiroshi Hase, Gen Nakatani, Mio Sugita, and Takashi Nagao.
(M) I am well acquainted with all of them.
(O) As a result, the National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-term Defense Program from 2019 include text about improving JSDF labor conditions.
(M) That’s a great accomplishment. As you say, military strength does not depend merely on equipment – people are also essential. Better treatment will increase the number of people who want to become JSDF members and also improve morale among current officials. Morale is extremely important for armed forces. I believe we must also strive to make the citizens more aware of national defense, which is one reason I have worked to revive pride in our home nation of Japan. I’m curious about one thing. A great deal of time passed between 2008, when you read Tamogami’s essay, and 2021, when you entered your own. Did you wait so long on purpose?
(O) Yes, after starting the association in 2014, I began writing magazine articles about JSDF issues in 2016.
(M) Do you currently have any magazine columns?
(O) I write a column in Hanada Plus, the online version of Monthly Hanada magazine. Previously I penned columns for a long period of time on the news website operated by Daily SPA! I mainly focus on JSDF labor issues. Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Ukraine didn’t set out to war with Russia – it had no choice but to fight back against a unilateral invasion. The online news and media outlets are reporting almost daily on the terrible suffering of nonresistant civilians. I think this has given all Japanese people, including myself, a sense of how horrible war is. I submitted an essay this year because I thought this was a unique opportunity to think about Japan, which does not have an army. I am thrilled to have won this award.
(M) In your essay you refer to the possibility that Japan will experience a war on two fronts with Russia and China. You conclude by saying we must have the defense capability to oppose them. I agree, and I think that equipment and soldiers are not enough all citizens must have an awareness of the need to defend their own country. We can’t assume America will immediately protect us because of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. I believe the ideal is that Japan first fights on its own behalf, with America joining the conflict and helping according to the treaty when necessary. I think the “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest plays a role in inspiring this consciousness among the people of Japan.
(O) I definitely think so. I touched on the concept of alliances in my essay. The Budapest Memorandum was a political agreement concluded in 1994. The U.S., United Kingdom, and Russia agreed to guarantee Ukraine’s security in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. Ukraine abandoned its nuclear weapons and lost its ability to deter attacks because it put faith in that treaty. Despite this, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and has started a large-scale invasion of Ukraine this year. In the international community, you cannot place any trust in another country, even if they promised to provide protection. I think you can only depend on your own country.
(M) Yes, that’s why we have to consider all sorts of scenarios and come up with means to handle them. Japan has neglected these preparations, and too many people believe peace will continue as long as we wish for it. We also can’t assume no wars will occur unless we start them ourselves. Because wars are prevented by a balance of power, we must always be adjusting our military strength to achieve deterrence and make sure no power vacuums are created. It seems Japan has forgotten even how to talk about defense during the long period of peace since World War II. There is a culture of treating these discussions as taboo topics that can lead to war. We must change this tendency. No matter what alliances we have, we can’t know when the circumstances will change. We should think about ways to protect our own country first.
(O) I agree entirely.
(M) The essay contest Grand Prize bears the name of my penname, Seiji Fuji. The surname refers to Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan, and the characters for “Seiji” mean “sincere intention,” expressing my determination to protect Japan according to the Bushido spirit. I have been writing under this penname for more than 30 years because I hope many people will share the same will.
(O) China is also acting in a suspicious way. Former President Hu Jintao was seemingly dragged out of the recent National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. One gets the sense that President Xi Jinping might be trying to carry out a second Cultural Revolution.
(M) China, our neighbor, is a military superpower with great economic strength and a stance that is not necessarily pro-Japanese. Japan must see China as a threat and come up with countermeasures based on that.
(O) In the wide world, I think Japan is the only country surrounded by three nuclear states (in this case, Russia, North Korea, and China). These nations are not friendly to Japan – they violate our territorial waters, launch ballistic missiles, and sail fleets through the Tsugaru Strait as military “exercises.” I find it bizarre that more Japanese people aren’t concerned about this.
(M) That’s right. Despite the security treaty, I doubt the U.S. would fight for Japan if it opened America up to the possibility of retaliation. The American citizens wouldn’t allow it.
(O) According to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, the American president could send the military to Japan without Congressional approval. However, American law stipulates that Congress could carry out procedures to withdraw it afterwards. In the end, it all depends on the U.S.
(M) It makes sense that the U.S. would act according to its own interests. That’s why we must revise the constitution, position the JSDF as a national military, and gain the ability to properly use armed strength to defend our own country. With our current constitution, if a JSDF official travels overseas for peacekeeping operations (PKO) or the like, they are permitted to use weapons but not “military force.” The right to use weapons originally comes from the Police Duties Execution Act and is fundamentally limited to “self-defense” or “averting present danger.” They cannot shoot first. And because Japan has no military law, deviating from these rules could be regarded as a criminal offense. The official would be treated the same as if they killed a civilian during the execution of their duties, for example. JSDF members could be charged with crimes for things that are not considered criminal in other militaries. I think that’s why they can’t fulfill their missions properly.
(O) Although they have the right of self-defense, they can only use the minimum miliary force required to that end. But would that suffice if an enemy attacked Japan with its full strength? No matter what capabilities the JSDF has, we would definitely be defeated.
(M) In any case, the JSDF can’t fight with peace of mind under today’s laws. An official who puts their life on the line for the country is engaged in a heroic act, yet they can’t fight to their full capabilities. We should revise the constitution as soon as possible and establish a military law that recognizes the JSDF as a military and also allows for court-martials. Those are fundamental elements of a nation.
(O) In February 2019, a man attacked a JSDF official guarding the Ministry of Defense (MOD) gate in Ichigaya and attempted to steal the official’s rifle. The official only suffered minor injuries. The MOD announced that the firearm was unloaded, so the perpetrator couldn’t have shot it even if he had stolen it. It’s ridiculous that these guards at the MOD – which has authority over the JSDF – don’t have any bullets in their guns.
(M) Police sometimes guard JSDF facilities.
(O) That’s disgraceful.
(M) Even if they regularly used unloaded guns, they should have kept things vague without announcing it.
(O) Yes, although I’ve heard they are using loaded guns since that incident. I’m very concerned about this. JSDF personnel are not sufficiently compensated, either. If one is killed or disabled in the line of duty, the JSDF pays compensation up to 90 million yen, but only if they are recognized for “particularly great deeds.” JSDF members can’t fight without hesitation because they don’t know if their family would receive this money and be sufficiently taken care of in the event of their death. They also receive pay if they are mobilized to defend Japan, but the amount is unclear. JSDF salaries are often low, as well. They are given bonuses of 250 yen for tasks like handling explosive materials, and around 10,000 yen for jobs such as bomb disposal as part of inspections during the explosives manufacturing process.
(M) That’s not very much.
(O) I believe JSDF personnel should be told in advance how much they will be paid when they are sent to defend Japan.
(M) I absolutely agree. I also think this is influenced by the media and the consciousness of citizens who have been brainwashed by it. The postwar media has given people the mistaken understanding that the JSDF will encourage war, which is why we don’t have sufficient JSDF-related legislation.
(O) Yes, for instance, in urban warfare a bullet aimed at an enemy might ricochet and kill or wound a civilian. JSDF personnel defending their country would not be punished for killing an enemy because they are allowed to exercise military power in that case. But with Japan’s current legal system, a JSDF official who mistakenly killed a civilian would be charged at least with professional negligence resulting in death. I don’t think they can fight properly in these circumstances. There are other problems as well. As I wrote in Monthly SEIRON magazine, the insufficient defense budget has made “cannibalization maintenance” a normal practice, in which parts are removed from machines to repair other pieces of equipment. The Defense of Japan whitepaper says this frequently happens with equipment such as the F-2 fighter and P-1 patrol plane in particular. One news report stated that only 50% of JSDF planes are operational for this reason. While this frugality might be a uniquely Japanese virtue, it’s not a useful concept in the field of defense. What would they do if civilian lives were lost?
(M) Weapons are meaningless if they aren’t frequently maintained and inspected so they are available in the event of a crisis. We must invest at least the minimum level of funds for maintenance so the JSDF can utilize its capabilities. I think we should increase our defense spending at this time, including money for that purpose. The media condemns expanding the defense budget by bringing up the concept of an “arms race,” but as you say it should be conveying solid information about the JSDF. The news should also praise JSDF personnel for their defense and disaster response efforts in these difficult circumstances. That would boost morale and improve Japan’s defense abilities.
(O) Some countries have good military personnel systems. American soldiers who serve for a specified period of time are given lifelong pensions. If a soldier becomes disabled during that period, their medical expenses are paid for the rest of their life. Israel’s army and educational system are integrated so talented elementary and middle school students can receive advanced IT training in the army as long as they work as a soldier for a fixed interval after graduation. When they leave the army these top IT experts can launch their own businesses, a system that has made Israel’s IT industry one of the foremost in the world. The JSDF does provide necessary training, but there is no foundation for cutting-edge education with a view to the future. I wish Japan would introduce that type of system.
(M) Education is of course a wonderful thing, but Japan should also learn from the Israeli people’s will to defend their country. When I visited there, I learned that citizens who have completed their required military service must still spend several days participating in yearly training until the age of 41. Work shifts are determined around this training. Weapons are stocked in each region so all people can quickly obtain firearms to fight when a crisis occurs.
(O) Considering the tense state of Japan’s national security, it would make sense to devote a few weeks to defense-related experiential learning during each year of elementary and junior high school.
(M) I think that’s a great idea. That experience would be an opportunity for children to learn about defending their own nation, rather than relying on others.
(O) While speaking with a group of regular married women, I mentioned that Japan might someday be invaded like Ukraine. They said, “We won’t be able to make any friends unless we learn Chinese and Russian.” I found that frightening, like they assume our lifestyles won’t change even if Japan is invaded.
(M) They seem to think that wishing for peace is enough, and that Japan won’t be drawn into wars unless we start them. Things used to be even worse, and the JSDF was more feared and despised than any hypothetical enemies. The postwar media served a central role in making people think militaries are bad things, yet they work to keep citizens safe…
(O) Japan does have a reserve officer system, but they are not given sufficient uniforms or guns, except for some highly qualified Ready Reserve Self-Defense Officials. Regular reserve officials have to pay for dry cleaning their used uniforms, and their guns are secondhand as well. I can’t accept this, despite claims that there isn’t enough money.
(M) I agree.
(O) No discussions are moving forward on building emergency shelters. It’s like people think talking about scary scenarios will make them a reality. We should build shelters across Japan equipped with food, clothing, and medical supplies where people could evacuate from conventional and nuclear weapons. A former JSDF official told me that the Oedo Line is deep enough to withstand infrared rays and other initial effects of regular nuclear weapons, although it wouldn’t protect against radiation afterwards. I think we should build shelters in these power, plumbing, and other utility tunnels deep underground.
(M) Japan must be prepared for emergencies. At the end of the interview I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(O) It’s good to make friends and depend on others, but you should ask for cooperation only after taking care of the basics by yourself. This applies to nations as well. Japan must defend itself and only ask allies for assistance when it needs additional help.
(M) I feel the same way. Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
(O) Thank you.
Born in Takamatsu City, Kagawa Prefecture. Began working as a freelance writer after graduating from Kansai Gaidai University. Formed the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) Personnel Treatment Improvement Association in 2014 to examine issues regarding the labor conditions of JSDF members. She actively discusses the JSDF, national security, medical care, and other topics in mediums such as opinion magazines, newspapers, and TV programs, including a column in the monthly magazine Hanada Plus. Her published works include JSDF members pay for toilet paper at bases by themselves. (FUSOSHA Publishing Inc.). She teaches Japanese penmanship (calligraphy, pen writing, and ink drawing) under the alias “Seien.”