An October Anniversary

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2004

by Michael E. Stanley

IN OCTOBER 1989, I found myself in the cockpit of a Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) jet fighter high over Hokkaido. I was the first non-Japanese journalist to fly and photograph in any JASDF combat aircraft, and to my knowledge there have been no others since.

For four years after that, I covered a number of Japan-US bilateral military exercises and wrote several stories on the JASDF for Japanese magazines. I flew in first-line JASDF combat aircraft from the bases at Chitose (where this photo was taken), Misawa, Hyakuri and Nyutabaru, and in training aircraft at other regional bases.

In the span of those years, the Cold War sputtered out.
When I had first begun to cover the Self-Defense Forces, their 'tip of the spear' was generally pointed north -- toward Sakhalin, the Kuriles and Siberia. But by 1992, the Soviet threat was essentially over.

What would the Self-Defense Forces defend Japan against? In a questionnaire I distributed among JASDF officer candidates and trainee pilots that year, a surprising number responded that while they saw North Korea and China as future threats, they also perceived the US as a potential adversary in the future.

In late 1993, during an autumn bilateral air exercise, I had a leisurely dinner with a JASDF colonel, one of the exercise commanders. He explained at length that Japan's forces were
ready and entirely capable of fulfilling their responsibilities.

"Tactically, we have nothing to learn from the Americans," he opined. "However, we have everything to learn strategically. Our leadership has no long view. Most of what we do is a reaction to the concerns of the moment, for which we were inadequately prepared. That is our great weakness."

Now, as Japan's Self-Defense Forces emerge as a presence in the hot spots of this new century, what will be required to change the reality of which the colonel so openly spoke? The Japanese public -- including the media -- are woefully ill-equipped to deal with the scale and speed of events that their nation will face. Sooner or later, this will be made painfully evident. @

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