the cluster project

Militarization is Cute

How do you sell intensified militarization to a population that prizes peace and abhors war? If you’re Japan, you do it with adorable creatures, like this little fellah.

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While every other military in the world seem to use strength, macho, power, and grit for its war propaganda, the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) has chosen pure pop culture cuteness – kawaii.

Awww…look at that funny figure standing in front of the Patriot missile battery. And that Cobra helicopter is super cool!

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Kawaii, in various forms, is enormously popular among young people in Japan, and throughout the world. It is a part of anime, manga, video games, toys, bands, fashion…the list goes on. And now it is a part of the military, and remilitarization.

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Kids, do you like to play games on your smart phone? Sure you do! And here at the Self Defense Forces, we’ve got the funnest one yet — your mission is to protect your house with the most up-to-date weaponry on the planet.

In every case, the effect of this kawaii campaign is to soften the violence of military hardware, and signal that the Japanese self-defense forces are harmless and beneficial. Below please find the JSDF Okayama Provincial Cooperation Office’s gleeful military mascots. They’ve helped boost recruitment by 20%.


To get a sense of why Japan uses cute iconography to push the military, we have to consider its unique history. Less than a century ago, the Japanese Empire was fiercely militarized, conquering surrounding nations in a frenzy for control and expansion. Its power was marked by atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Chinese capital were assaulted, raped, or killed.


By the end of World War II, the military aggression of the Japanese empire came full circle. Japanese civilians faced both war-time deprivations and ferocious bombing by the United States. 60 cities were hit with incendiary bombing raids and effectively burned to the ground. The firebombing of Tokyo alone killed over 100,000 civilians. Finally, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought radioactive devastation to the empire of the rising sun. War decimated the entire nation.


The post-war constitution of Japan brought an enduring commitment to peace. And so it has stood for almost 70 years. But the current government under Shinzo Abe wants to change all that. With the prodding of the USA, they want to manufacture popular consent for a more potent military force. Part of this campaign involves a systematic campaign to revise the past and give a makeover to the Empire’s past crimes.

The Abe government has denied accusations of an international campaign that the Imperial Military systematically used “comfort women” or sex slaves, during its historic reign. At home, it has revised textbooks to minimize war crimes, and legitimize war aims. The 1910 annexation of Korea with its thorough subjugation of the Korean people is described by new textbooks as “necessary to protect the security of Japan and its interests in Manchuria.” The Japanese military aggression of WW2 is glorified and depicted as honorable.


But it’s the cute characters of kawaii that make the most insidious propaganda for war. Former JSDF member and author Takumi Yanai wrote a fantasy series called Gate, where the JSDF travel through a portal to another world to team up with cute girls and take down monsters. It became a manga (illustrated) version, and more recently was made into an anime TV series. In style, the illustrations feature realistic JSDF hardware and soldiers — along with elves and dragons. The JSDF has made its own promotional posters that reference the fantasy series, and is almost indistinguishable from commercial publicity for the series itself.


Even the Japanese Defense Industry has used kawaii to highlight its deadly technology. Its neon pink and yellow poster, complete with sparkles and oversized cartoon eyes, announced its defense technology symposium, a showcase of industry military wares, organized by the government’s new department of military procurement.


Will Japan succeed in remilitarizing? It’s not clear. There is strong, popular opposition to this campaign. In July of 2015, 120,000 protested in Tokyo against removing pacifist passages from the constitution. Protests also occurred in over 200 more locations, making it the largest antiwar protest in decades. Nevertheless, in am middle-of-the-night vote, the ruling Abe government was later able to remove the constitutional prohibition on overseas military operations


Will the future of Japan be a cute figure in military fatigues?

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[This entry was sparked by Matthew Brummer’s excellent article Manga, the Japanese Military].

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