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Japan's military engages in popularity push

TOKYO -- Pacifist Japan is gradually learning to love its military, with an apparent public relations campaign under way to soften its image, featuring online popularity contests, a much-touted soprano vocalist and dating events.

The armed forces are also visible in youth culture, with young teens tuning in to “Girl und Panzer” a cartoon about schoolgirls who do battle in tanks. Japan's most popular Twitter hashtag in 2013 was #KanColle, a reference to an online game in which anthropomorphized warships compete to out-pretty each other as young girls.

The image change comes as nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to give the Self Defense Forces (SDF) more money and scope to act as a normal military might, at a time of rising tensions with China.

The SDF has not fired a shot in battle since a battered and broken Japan surrendered in 1945, accepting a United States-led occupation that would last until 1952.

Its once-huge armed forces were emasculated, stripped by the foreign-imposed constitution of the right to wage war and restricted to a self-defense role.

What arose in their place was an organization that spent the intervening decades quietly becoming a highly-professional and well-disciplined force, one far removed from the army that wreaked havoc across Asia before and during World War II in the name of the emperor.

Relief efforts in the aftermath of Japan's 2011 tsunami awakened the public to its modern-day military, and the sight of soldiers combing wrecked coastlines became a comfort for those whose loved ones had disappeared beneath the waves.

“People have begun to feel the same way about the military as they do about police or firefighters,” said Yoshinori Saeki, secretary-general of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Stability.

Charm Offensive

On the frontline of nurturing friendly ties with citizens is Yukari Miyake, a 27-year-old petty officer third class dubbed the “sole vocalist” of the 230,000-strong SDF.

On the sidelines of a concert in Tokyo last year, Miyake said the public seemed to warm to her.

“There is great significance in the fact that I sing in uniform. Whenever I sing on stage for the audience, I feel dearly that I'm giving them inspiration and that they're more open about their feelings with someone in uniform,” she told AFP.

Those who came to the concert said musical and other cultural activities were contributing to softening the image of troops.

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The sole vocalist of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Band, 27-year-old Yukari Miyake, a petty officer third class, sings during a concert rehearsal, in Matsudo, Chiba prefecture on Dec. 6, 2013. (AFP)

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