Tokyo, army opens to tattooed youths to counter recruitment shortfall
by Alessandra Tamponi

Proposal made in parliament to make military careers more attractive to young people. The stigma associating tattoos with organized crime remains in the country, but 60 percent of Japanese in their 20s believe the rules should change. Demographic crisis among obstacles to Kishida's desired military manpower expansion.

Tokyo (AsiaNews). Japan is considering lifting a ban on the recruitment of tattooed young men and women. The proposal emerged during a recent meeting at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the House of Councilors. The measure is intended to make it easier for them to enlist and address the severe personnel shortage facing the Japanese Armed Forces (SDF).

Although no longer illegal since World War II, tattoos in Japan are still frowned upon by society, especially by older generations, because of the link between tattoos and criminal organizations.

Due to the stigma attached to criminality, tattooed people in Japan face various difficulties, from not being able to use public swimming pools or spas to risking not being able to access careers in the public sector. 

However, the perception of tattooing is slowly changing, especially among the younger generation. A survey by Haruka Sakaguchi for the New York Times shows that by 2021 more than one million Japanese people have tattoos, double the number in 2014, and more than 60 percent of Japanese in their 20s believe that rules regarding tattoos should change.

However, these rules remain highly relevant to enlistment in the SDF, where tattooed applicants are discarded regardless. The issue was raised by Masahisa Sato, a Liberal Democratic Party politician and former member of the ground forces in the SDF. In a speech, reported by the Japan Times, Sato said that rejecting candidates just because they are tattooed weakens the SDF by undermining its ability to recruit.

Defense is one of the key themes of the Kishida administration, which has promised to increase military spending to 2 percent of national GDP by 2027, effectively announcing a significant shift away from the pacifist stance Japan has maintained since after World War II. Despite the new policies and increased spending the most significant obstacles to improving Japan's defense remain those related to recruitment.

The current goal is to ensure that the SDF is staffed with 247,154 personnel, with at least 16,000 recruits. The demographic crisis is one of the problems: recruitment is generally among the population in the 18-26 age group, which has dropped from 17 million in 1994 to just 10.5 million in 2021.

The other major problem is the negative perception of a military career; in fact, the better salary conditions in the private sector are also compounded by greater risks of bullying and sexual harassment in the military.

The low youth unemployment rate in Japan also allows the younger generation to be more selective about their careers further contributing to the difficulties in the recruitment phase. Japan's SDF are volunteer forces that, unlike other countries such as South Korea or Taiwan, cannot rely on a national recruitment system such that they have the reservists they need to meet the manpower shortage.

All this is happening against the backdrop of a significant deterioration in regional dynamics in Northeast Asia, from North Korea's increasingly ambitious tests to the tense climate in the Taiwan Strait of an increasingly aggressive China.

The voluntary nature of the SDF makes it imperative for Japan to take measures that can improve image and consequently perception and make the branch popular in the age group for recruitment. This for now has been done through intensive marketing campaigns that also rely on Japan's vast popular culture and the promise of measures such as wage increases or initiatives to make work-life balance easier.

As much as suspending the rule on tattoos may seem like an insignificant initiative given the small percentage of young people who are tattooed, it could still help mitigate the negative image of the SDF as an employment sector by making it appear as a body willing to abandon rules that for younger segments of the population become obsolete, consequently making the sector more prepared to adapt to Japan's changing social dynamics.