Japan's military will review a ban on tattoos in a bid to attract young recruits.

Japan is about to break a long-standing taboo to allow men and women with tattoos to serve in the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), once again underscoring the personnel crisis plaguing the country’s armed forces.

Despite having become commonplace in many other countries, tattoos are still regarded by many in Japan – especially the older generation – as a symbol of belonging to “yakuza” organized crime groups. Tattoos began to be used in the early 18th century to mark people who had committed a crime, from a band on the wrist to a “kanji” character on the forehead.

The stigma attached to tattoos continued as they became a mark of membership in criminal groups but were shunned by the rest of Japanese society.

Although some young people have braved the social stigma of getting fashion-inspired tattoos that are common abroad, the number is still extremely low.

However, faced with a shortage of qualified personnel, the army is leaving no stone unturned in its search for new recruits.

In a recent speech to the Diet, Masahisa Sato, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a former officer in the Ground Self-Defense Force, said the country needed to relax rules that prevented some people from joining the armed forces.

“Rejecting applicants just because they have tattoos poses a problem in improving the human resource base,” Sato was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

“Different types of tattoos, including trendy ones like a small flower or one’s own name,” should not be confused with the type of full-body tattoos often favored by yakuza gangs, Sato added.

Kazuhito Machida, head of the defense ministry’s personnel and education department, agreed with Sato’s comments, saying the government needed to reconsider the rules given the plummeting birth rate in the nation, with total numbers of new babies below the 800,000 thresholds last year.

Japan’s population decline and staff shortages coincide with the worsening security situation in Northeast Asia: China is increasingly aggressive in the region, North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and Russia also poses new challenges.

The ministry confirmed in April that only 4,300 new troops had joined the Self-Defense Forces on fixed-term contracts in the exercise that ended in March, less than half the ministry’s target of 9,245 new recruits across the three branches of the army. This deficit is the most serious since comparable statistics began to be compiled in 2009.

Japan’s armed forces number some 247,000, a figure that barely represents 90% of the army’s optimal figure despite increasing efforts to attract new recruits in recent years.

“The most important reason for the shortage is that the Japanese are not sufficiently aware of security issues,” says Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo.

“In Japan, you don’t see people in uniform, and that’s very different from what happens in other countries,” he added.

In addition to the lack of awareness of the military as a career path and the perception in some quarters that the military was not really necessary, there was also a belief that the military was not well paid and that there were better opportunities in civilian jobs, Hinata-Yamaguchi said. .

“When we had the financial crisis 15 years ago, there were fewer job opportunities and the feeling that jobs were less stable, so more people joined the Self-Defense Forces because they felt that they ensured stability,” he says.

Other issues that may discourage people from pursuing a career in the services include reports of intimidation of recruits, cases of sexual harassment of female personnel, and inadequate housing and facilities on military bases.

At a time when the country is facing a severe labor shortage, as the number of elderly increases and the number of young people entering the workforce decreases, the military has to be creative in convincing people that get ready.

The new defense budget introduced at the beginning of the year includes new provisions to improve base housing and facilities, increased salaries and special attention to female recruits, with better maternity leave and childcare provisions.

Robert Dujarric, co-director of the Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, says there are signs that the Japanese military is becoming more open.

“Tattoos are still rare in Japan, but they are probably becoming a bit more acceptable because there is a big difference between ‘tattoos in fashion’ and the designs worn by the yakuza,” he said.

Japan's military will review a ban on tattoos in a bid to attract young recruits.
Japanese tattoo artist Horiai works with a client during a tattoo convention.

It’s also likely that a youthful indiscretion leading to a tattoo would not be acceptable in other careers in Japan, but the military’s change of heart gave such people a chance, he suggested.

However, with the number of young people getting tattoos still very limited, Hinata-Yamaguchi says relaxing the tattoo ban is unlikely to solve the problems associated with the shortage of military personnel.

“Of course, they are exploring all avenues, but I would be surprised if 2% of young Japanese have tattoos, so lifting the ban is not going to solve the HR problems of the forces suddenly,” he says. “They have to come up with a number of ways to get more people into the organization and keep it going longer.”

Julian Ryall