Japan's military recruiting goes pop

All-girl group Morning Musume has been enlisted by the Self Defense Agency to help sway 18- to 27-year-olds to join up.

Japan's Self Defense Agency is pulling out the big guns in its new recruiting campaign to meet the nation's growing military profile - but Saddam Hussein may not have much to fear.

In an extreme makeover, the latest Japanese military recruitment poster shuns traditional images of weapons and crew cuts. Instead, it features the song-in-a-can dance troupe Morning Musume in summer frocks and ponytails urging the nation's best and brightest to enlist.

Wildly popular among junior high school students, Morning Musume is a producer-picked group of girl-next-door types as young as 13 years old. Their name translates as "morning daughter" or "morning maiden" - hardly suggestive of a life of discipline in the armed forces. In Japan's highly commercialized entertainment industry, the hyped-up teens appear everywhere, from ads to talk shows.

Their latest venue reflects the recruiting difficulty the Japanese government faces now that the once purely defensive military may actually see some action.

Last month, the island nation passed a law allowing the Self Defense Forces (SDF) to be dispatched to Iraq, but opposition among Japanese to any deployment remains high at 52 percent, according to the latest poll by the Nihon Keizai newspaper.

Morning Musume is apparently unfazed. "Go! Go! Peace!" the poster exclaims with at least one of the 15-member group holding up two fingers in the peace sign. Others strike poses more fitting for a pep rally than a war cry, as they make the hang-five sign and tilt their heads cheerily.

At least a few of those in the recruitment target age group of 18 to 27 aren't impressed. "It doesn't make me feel like signing up," says 19-year old Takayuki Morimoto, calling it an annoying gimmick. "It's good we're deploying the SDF to Iraq - but I'm not joining the army."

"How embarrassing for Japan," says a 26-year old Web designer.

The new campaign replaces posters depicting uniformed recruits idealistically looking skyward, alongside shots of jets, frigates, and guns. In the past, the big draw to a career in the SDF was said to be the chance to gain experience in technical fields with no risk of injury due to Japan's war-renouncing Constitution.

As Japan seeks to take on a bigger military role overseas, the Defense Agency cites balancing a higher profile with a falling number of personnel as a key concern. "On one hand, the areas of activity for the SDF are increasing, but on the other, the number of troops is decreasing," the recently issued annual Defense Agency policy paper said.

But if the group of barely pubescent-looking girls can attract 26 million hits on their website, surely they can spur a few fans to do their duty for the nation.

Unfortunately for the US and Britain, Japan's youths may not be easily persuaded.

"The army is important work - but it's not something I want to do," says one 24-year-old part-time worker. "Seeing the poster doesn't inspire me to join up."

Past recruitment drives have failed to fill agency quotas and the problem is expected only to grow worse as Japan's birthrate drops. Yet if government plans to take an active role in Iraq are to become reality, winning over young people is a battle the Defense Agency must win.

Following the recent bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, local media reported Japan's government will probably postpone sending troops to Iraq until next year. But even before the bombing, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had been wavering over concerns about safety and the possibility of unfavorable publicity before elections in Japan later this year.

While the first round of the Morning Musume campaign appears to have started on an off note, it's still early. Indeed, Defense Agency officials are keeping a jealous eye on what happens to their pop idol merchandise. Perhaps anticipating a strain on the recruitment division's budget if swarms of Morning Musume fans were to demand a copy, a spokeswoman at the agency said, "I'm sorry, we are unable to supply members of the public with a poster."

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