YOKOSUKA, Japan (Reuters Life!) - Growing up in Japan, Yusuke Tsuge never imagined he’d run around in military fatigues or carry a rifle in a country that has not engaged in armed conflict since its defeat in World War Two.
But on a recent sunny day, Tsuge, a magazine editor, was among 42 Japanese taking part in training to join the military reserve force, in which ordinary people with day jobs stand by to help out the military when it is mobilized to defend the country.
Under a gun-shy, post-war defense policy, Japan has never deployed its reserve force, formed in 1954 and now with a headcount of 39,500.
Even the military, officially called the Self-Defence Forces (SDF), is untested in battle. Japan’s pacifist constitution bans the maintenance of a military, although it has been stretched to allow armed forces for self-defense.
After saluting the national flag following an early morning formation drill, Tsuge and the other trainees, clad in uniforms and green helmets, slung rifles over their shoulders before marching to a field to practice surveillance and capturing enemy soldiers at gunpoint.
As a reservist with no military experience, Tsuge would not take part in front-line defense but could still be called on to guard army posts at home or to transport supplies. He could also be deployed to help the SDF in rescue work for earthquakes, floods and other disasters.
“I usually work in ordinary clothes so when I come in for training, put on my uniform and hold my rifle, I feel a sense of determination to do my duty,” said the 33-year-old Tsuge, a car salesman before an interest in tank engines led him to work at a military magazine, at the SDF’s Camp Takeyama in Yokosuka, 45 kilometers (28 miles) southwest of Tokyo.
“I have a family now, so I have a stronger feeling of wanting to protect my family and to protect my country,” added Tsuge, dressed in crisp-clean fatigues and boots, who has a baby son.
Joining the reserves is voluntary in Japan, unlike countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Israel, where service is mandatory for some time after national service.
Japan’s reserve force opened its door to ordinary citizens just 10 years ago. While it is still made up mostly of former SDF personnel, the number of applicants has grown in recent years.
Some attribute the boost in applicants to the bad economy, rather than a rising interest in defense. Reservists are given a 4,000 yen ($49) monthly allowance in addition to 8,100 yen a day for training which they take part in five days a year.
But others attribute the rise to a small but growing interest in the SDF, which has boosted its profile — not for its militarism but rather for its work in disaster relief.
While public concern is rising over China’s military build-up and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, those issues appeared not to be a driving force for aspiring reservists.
“Most people come because they become interested in the SDF after seeing it at work during natural disasters and think that they too can help out in rescue work,” said Takeshi Ishibashi, a first lieutenant and SDF trainer at Camp Takeyama.
Still, the training for the reserve force includes indoor shooting practice. Tsuge and his group only pretended to shoot in the recent training, shouting “Bang, bang!”, but will eventually practice with live ammunition during their 50-day course.
Only a third of those who are accepted for training end up becoming reservists, while about a tenth end up joining the SDF.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried,” said Masayuki Takeda, 24, a sports gym instructor, of his future duties. He is training to be a reservist but expects to join the SDF in April.
“But I think I’ll be able to overcome those worries as long as I actively take part in training and raise my sense of duty through that training.”
Editing by Elaine Lies