“Go for it, future Self-Defense Officer!”

Shaping Japanese Children’s Attitudes toward the Self-Defense Forces by Government PR Manga

Felix Spremberg, Department of Japanese Studies, University of Tübingen [About | Email]

Volume 23, Issue 1 (Article 4 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 17 April 2023.


This paper shows that recent Japanese military PR manga (2006-2019) published on the Ministry of Defense ‘kid’s Website’ target children as young as elementary-school-age and openly display the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) despite their contested nature in view of Japan’s pacifistic constitution. The discursive strategies utilised are highly gendered with modalities of gamification, shaming, validation, and romance and seek to capitalise on the insecurities of Japanese boys and girls that pertain to age, gender, and liminality. In light of recent changes to moral education and increased circulation of commercial military manga sponsored by the Ministry of Defense, a broader strategy to target elementary-school-age children for government discourse about national security and the military—including its role in the Asia-Pacific War—becomes apparent.

Keywords: Self-Defense Forces, manga, gender, popular culture, military.


A momentous double agenda of overhauling security policy and the education system has taken place in Japan in recent years. Under the lead of Abe Shinzō, prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and 2012 to 2020, the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) achieved several milestones in the security-education policy nexus, namely the revision of the Basic Law of Education that installed patriotism as a core principle, the upgrade of the Japanese Defense Agency (JDA) to a full-fledged ministry (Ministry of Defense, MoD), the “reinterpretation” of the constitution that allows the SDF to participate in collective self-defense and the upgrade of moral education to a regular school subject with student evaluation and compulsory textbook use in 2015.

Tight connections between security and education policy are not new. As early as the first years of the 1950s, conservatives sought ways to instill patriotism into children with the aim to facilitate rearmament. Prime minister Yoshida Shigeru put this rather bluntly in 1952:

We should consolidate the foundation for rearmament on both, the material and the psychological side. Therefore, on the psychological side, we must cultivate patriotism as the basis for rearmament by geography and history education that teaches about Japan as a beautiful country with the best history in the world (Asahi Shimbun 1952, p. 1).

This was an important rationale behind the establishment of moral education in 1958 (Ōmori 2018, p. 189), and played a role in the decade-long efforts of the Ministry of Education (MoE) to censor history textbooks that discussed Japan's colonial rule in Asia and its role in the Asia-Pacific War (Nozaki & Selden 2009).

Discourses on remilitarisation, patriotism, and history became further entangled in the 1990s when the SDF participated in a Peacekeeping Operation abroad for the first time. At this time, the JDA established a PR department to normalise the SDF and to influence the public toward a more appreciative view of it. The biggest hurdles to these efforts are persisting pacifist attitudes in Japan and the fact that the scope and role of the SDF are limited by Japan’s pacifist constitution (McElwain 2020).

While pacifist attitudes resulting from the war experience are still strong in Japanese society, in 2006 LDP lawmakers and the MoE enabled the introduction of a revisionist history textbook series by Tsukurukai, a private organisation maintaining tight connections with the right-wing establishment including leading political figures such as Abe Shinzō. This encroachment on history education which included the whitewashing of the Asia-Pacific War was ultimately rendered moot by the independent local education boards who refused to select the textbooks (Saaler 2005, p. 64-66).

However, as an analysis of the new moral education textbooks in use since 2018 reveals, conservative elites in the LDP and the MoE are now (mis-)using the moral education subject to teach contentious historical issues outside of and prior to history education in middle and high schools. By hiding the Japanese role in the war and suggesting that Japan was an innocent victim of American aggression the perception of the Japanese military per se becomes altered (Spremberg 2021).
Government efforts to legitimise and normalise the SDF and to influence children’s beliefs about the history of Japan and its military are not limited to school education but include PR activities coordinated by the MoD. Since the 1990s, these activities have, most notably, included the utilisation of popular culture such as the production of manga and the sponsoring of military manga and anime published by private companies (Hall 2021). In part, these efforts also serve to recruit young people as the SDF are chronically suffering from a manpower shortage and high drop-out rates. This is the main reason, why the SDF is also wooing women to join the military (Sato 2012, p. 7).

As Sabine Frühstück’s seminal work on the SDF and military PR in Japan suggests, many of the SDF manga prior to 2006 were probably targeted at adults: Child characters were used in them for strategic reasons, namely to trivialise the military by showing “the SDF, their missions, and their roles in terms of the small, unthreatening, childlike, and cute; […]” (Frühstück 2017, p. 168), to use their vulnerability to legitimise the military, and to entertain older male audiences by showing the SDF by sexualised girl characters (Frühstück 2012, p. 4; 2017, pp. 168-169, pp. 178-181). While some other MoD manga were targeted at children, such as the Prince Pickles series that was published in the mid-1990s, their narratives were located in fairy tale worlds without references to Japan and its military (Frühstück 2009, pp. 8-12). That adults were the original main target group is also revealed in the original MoD’s plan to increase the readership of the defense white books by producing a manga version of it (Ito 2008).

A cursory overview of recent MoD manga (2006-2019) suggests, however, that they have a new quality. In contrast to older manga, they are devoid of sexualisation and unapologetically show the SDF as Japan’s military. They revolve around child characters and utilise strategies that target children specifically. This has been indicated by Frühstück in her discussion of the Bōeimon PR anime [1] that was published by the MoD in 2015 (2017, p. 165).

Frühstück provides a useful and compelling analysis of a limited number of MoD manga in the broader context of various military PR activities, ranging from manga and posters to events. This paper focuses specifically on the MoD manga and utilises critical discourse analysis (CDA) to examine the material in a more complete and systematic way resulting in more representative findings. For this reason, a corpus is compiled including all MoD produced manga published in the 2006 to 2019 time-frame (including material from the 2015 to 2019 time-frame that has not been analysed previously) and that can be downloaded from the MoD’s ‘kids’ Website [2]. Diachronic analysis of the corpus helps to uncover changes and allows to exactly identify ‘turning points’ in the discourse, notably a strategic shift to display SDF soldiers in an unconcealed fashion in 2007/2008. CDA, as laid out by Siegfried Jäger (2012; Jäger & Maier 2009), is a suitable method as it firstly allows for multimodal analysis by the inclusion of pictures (Friedrich & Jäger 2011) that naturally play a paramount role in manga. Secondly, this method is sensitive to the deliberate conflation of topics (such as national security and sports) that is a salient and relevant strategy in the manga [3]. Finally, this paper puts its findings in context by discussing parallels to recent changes to the moral education subject, most notably with regard to the strategy to target discourse on the Asia-Pacific War and the military at elementary age school children.

The following questions are tackled: What is the manga’s main target group with regard to age and gender? Are they, as hypothesised above, geared towards elementary school age children? Clues to this answer will be derived from a systematic analysis of the manga’s main characters and the discursive strategies utilised in the narratives. How are soldiers and the SDF presented? Which results can be obtained with regard to gender as this played a big role in earlier manga as shown by Frühstück? What discursive strategies are utilised by the authors? Lastly, what do these findings mean in the light of the recent reform of moral education?

The corpus examined by CDA consists of 14 manga that have been published on a yearly basis from 2006 through 2019. After examination of the authorship the basic narrative pattern that almost all manga share is introduced. Then, several narrative types with differing character constellations are identified. This is followed by an analysis of the manga’s characters. Their age and gender are revealed by examination of the introductory sections (tōjō jinbutsu) that are included in almost all manga and which offer short descriptions of the respective main characters. To make sense of the role of gender, the depiction of girl heroes, female soldiers, boy heroes, and male soldiers are analysed separately, including the illustrations and narratives. Finally, the main discursive strategies utilised, namely the gamification of war, historical revisionism, shaming, validation, and romance are discussed.

The manga analysed span between 30 and 79 pages and share the title: Reading by manga. [statement of year] Defense White Book. The only exception to this is the most recent manga that is titled The Ministry of Defense and the Self Defense Forces—Understanding the Ministry of Defense and the SDF so well (MoD 2019). The individual sub-titles relate to specific focal points, for instance, The international peace cooperation in Haiti (MoD 2010). The manga’s contents loosely relate to the yearly Defense White Books (bōei hakusho) but, as will be outlined below, mainly serve to introduce the reader to the SDF’s various activities.

It is important to keep in mind that the manga have two makers: The MoD PR staff and the contracted artists. Examination of the information on the authorship provided in the manga reveals that diverse authors and artists have been chosen, and it remains unclear why specific authors have been chosen. However, at least one of them, Satō Harumi, has previously published a manga discussing national defense and war.

Before authoring the 2006 MoD manga, Satō published the animal story Dōbutsu no jingi naki tatakai—Gairaishu vs. dochakushu (The Animals’ Battles Without Honor and Humanity—Foreign vs. Indigenous Species) in 1994. [4] This is a story about Japan being invaded by foreign animals via the Korean peninsula. After arrival, they displace the domestic species, most notably the green pheasant—the national bird of Japan—which is ultimately driven to extinction. Interestingly, this bird also features in Satō’s MoD manga which suggests that the MoD might have approved of the metaphoric animal story and its xenophobic message.

Narrative Structure

Almost all of the manga follow a formulaic stock plot and all feature children as main characters. In the beginnings, the child heroes get into contact with the SDF, for example when a soldier visits their school (MoD 2009), when they get introduced to soldiers by their parents or people from the neighbourhood. In one instance, they randomly meet a soldier on the street (MoD 2008). As only a minority of the children have previously encountered soldiers, for example in the wake of natural disasters (MoD 2013; 2016; 2018), most of them are unaware of the SDF’s role and activities. Meeting the soldiers stirs the children’s interest, sometimes to a degree of enthusiasm (MoD 2013, p. 12); in some manga, the children deliberately choose the SDF as the topic for a school assignment (MoD 2013; 2016, p. 61).

The manga’s middle parts often narrate the children’s visit to a military venue such as the MoD in Tokyo. A common trope in these scenes is the size and magnificence of the MoD at which the children marvel (MoD 2013, p. 13; 2014, p. 13; 2016, p. 16; 2017, p. 23) with the building serving as a symbol for the ministry’s great power. In the 2018 manga, for instance, the children first take part in a PR event at a navy facility (MoD 2018, pp. 4-7) and then visit the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Public Information Center in Saitama (MoD 2018, p. 17). During their visit, the children are lectured by soldiers about the SDF’s accoutrement, various activities with regard to national security, international peace-keeping, as well as disaster prevention and relief at home and abroad.

As Frühstück observes in her analysis of the 2010 manga (2017, pp. 171-172), these middle parts are hardly entertaining, as the dialogues consist of little more than soldiers’ explanations and the children’s questions and interjections of amazement. In addition, these pages are often overburdened with charts and maps. While this is somewhat remedied by the strategic use of comic relief, it is likely that not all readers will be able to soldier through these parts at least not without skipping pages. Finally, the child heroes are shown deeply impressed by the SDF’s “terrific” (sugoi) service, the “coolness” (kakkō ii) of their soldiers, their “powerful” (hakuryoku aru) weaponry, and their abilities—in one case to a degree that embarrasses the soldiers (MoD 2016, p. 53).

Most manga conclude with the children—inspired by the soldiers—vowing to follow their individual dreams which, in some but not all instances, is to become soldiers themselves. Sometimes the children are depicted imagining their future selves clad in uniforms and accompanied by friends or family who are or have become soldiers as well (MoD 2017, p. 61; 2019, p. 31). In one manga, one of the boy heroes is even moved to tears by patriotic sentiments and is shown saluting his friend, a female SDF soldier, who affectionately puts her hands on his shoulders (MoD 2012, p. 68). In the narratives in which children chose an SDF-related topic for a school assignment, the reader sees their knowledge being received enthusiastically by teachers and peers (MoD 2014; 2016; 2019; 2017, p. 55).

The two oldest manga (MoD 2006; 2007) somewhat deviate from this structure, as they feature elements of time travel and fantasy, probably to avoid showing Japanese soldiers. In the 2006 manga by Satō Harumi, the author of the above-mentioned story about the invasion of foreign animals, the children are transported into the premodern past by the “spirit of the green pheasant,” who is accompanied by the “cherry blossom spirit,” a symbol that will be discussed below. SDF soldiers are substituted in this story by a brave boy who convinces the time travelers of the necessity of defense and serves as a role model. In the end, when his village is attacked, he actually goes off to defend it as a child soldier. In the 2007 manga, the explaining part is assigned to two fantasy characters from a parallel world, who introduce themselves as Peace Preservation Patrol officers (MoD 2007, p. 9).

Three character constellations can be identified that each allows the authors to employ specific discursive strategies. The boy and girl type features child heroes of both genders and is the most common type (eight out of fourteen stories). It enables the authors to communicate to girls and boys equally as both genders can potentially identify with one of the main characters.

The heroic trinity type is the second most common type with three manga. Each of them features three child heroes—two boys and one girl (MoD 2006; 2012; 2017). Besides allowing both girl and boy readers to identify with one of the main characters, this constellation might have been chosen for reasons of familiarity since many commercial manga and anime such as Daily Lives of High School Boys, Nichijou, or Minami-ke follow this pattern. In addition, the “group of three friends” (nakayoshi sannin-gumi) (MoD 2017, p. 5) is used to symbolise the three branches of the SDF. In two out of the three narratives, this is underscored by the children’s names: Kai (the character for sea) symbolising the Ground Self-Defense Forces, Sora or Kū (two readings of the character for sky) symbolising the Air Self-Defense Forces, and Riku (the character for land) symbolising the Ground Self-Defense Forces (MoD 2006, 2017).

This symbolism is also employed in the 2012 manga on the topic of joint operations when three metaphorical arrows are mentioned. The children exclaim: “We are joining forces just like the three arrows and give our best!” (MoD 2012, p. 15; see Fig. 1). This strategy is used to make the reader internalise the tripartite structure of the SDF and to connect the likable child heroes with it while at the same time communicating the necessity of ‘fighting’ together in a spirit of cooperation.  

Fig. 1: “We are joining forces just like the three arrows and give our best!” (MoD 2012, p. 15).

Lastly, three manga belong to what can be called the single hero type (MoD 2008; 2015; 2019. While manga revolving around a single boy (shōnen manga) or girl (shōjo manga) protagonist and addressing specific demographic groups are popular genres (MacWilliams 2008), this constellation is only used in three stories (two featuring a boy, one a girl hero). These narratives limit the potential for identification to one gender but can perhaps aim at the specific gender more effectively. As I will elabourate below, this happens when specific insecurities that pertain to gender roles and expectations are exploited. Interestingly, both boy hero stories revolve around the US-Japanese security cooperation with the Japanese boy meeting—and in one case falling in love with—a blonde, bright-eyed, American girl (MoD 2008; 2015). This stands in stark contrast to the long tradition in post-war Japanese popular culture to present Japan as the feminine counterpart to the masculine US (Igarashi 2000, p. 19-46) and differs also from the Watashitachi no dōmei manga series produced in 2010 by the U.S. Forces Japan (Frühstück 2017, p. 194).

The target audience’s age can be deduced by examining the character cast in the introductory sections that are included in almost all manga and often state the children’s school grades. [5] This analysis reveals that a large majority of the child heroes are elementary grade pupils (nine out of 14) and this share rises to 13 out of 14 if children are included whose grade is not mentioned but can clearly be identified as young children in the illustrations. The majority of these children visit classes five and six (shōgaku kōnen), while there is one child in fourth grade (MoD 2016) and none in the three lowest grades of elementary school. There is only one manga revolving around a high school student (MoD 2019) and none featuring a middle-school protagonist. Assuming that the main characters’ age reflects the target audience, these findings suggest that the manga mainly target elementary school children with an emphasis on the eleven to twelve years age bracket.

“A mom pilot who is strong and friendly... so admirable!”

Many discursive strategies applied in MoD PR material pertain to gender. While traditionally a masculine organisation, females have been used since the 1960s to recruit women and to raise popular support for the SDF by portraying it as ‘friendly’. Since the 1980s, women are actually overrepresented in MoD PR material (Sato 2012). As Frühstück’s research on Japanese military PR shows, the SDF have often been represented by girls, while boys, especially in pre-war and wartime propaganda, were often equated and permuted with male soldiers (Frühstück 2017). How are girls and women, boys and men presented in the corpus of MoD manga?

The investigation of the corpus reveals that there is some variety in the ways girl characters are presented. Analysis of the introductory sections reveals that the attributes most often used to describe their personalities are ‘curious’ (kōkishin ōsei), ‘lively’ (kappatsu), and ‘having a strong sense of justice’ (seigikan ga tsuyoi). Other girl characters are shown as naïve and simple-minded. This is perhaps most evident in the 2006 manga in which the girl Kai comments on the topic of national security with remarks like “Oh, I see!” and “That’s difficult!” prompting her male friend Sora to ask “You don’t get it, do you?” (MoD 2006, p. 6). Misaki in the 2012 manga, on the other hand, is introduced as the children’s newspaper’s chief editor. Her superior position vis-à-vis her male friends is underscored by her behaviour and language (MoD 2012).

Perhaps the most salient finding in contrast to Frühstück’s prior research is the depiction of female characters in the illustrations. While their physical beauty and kawaii cuteness (slender bodies, large eyes with long lashes) are highlighted, there are almost no instances of sexualisation. There is no character like Deko, the teen girl character in the 2005 MoD manga, who was presented in a fetishised way with stockings and a teasingly revealing skirt (Frühstück 2012, p. 4; 2017, p. 178). This is surprising as a certain degree of sexualisation, especially big breasts, is a common feature even in general manga magazines (Nagayama 2021, p. 137).

Systematic examination of the introductory sections uncovers that girl characters are somewhat backgrounded vis-à-vis the boys. They are often introduced by pointing out their relationship to a boy character, while in turn there is not a single instance of a boy being introduced by mentioning his relationship to a female. Also, there is almost no mention of their individual hobbies while boys’ favourite games are often discussed and included in the narratives in a meaningful way.
This, however, is ambiguous as the lack of female hobbies is a strategy to suggest a greater maturity of the girls in comparison to the boys. Girls are without exception depicted as ‘good kids’ who don’t waste time by watching anime or sleeping in like some of the boy characters. This maturity or seriousness seems to result from their (potential) victimhood which is another salient feature in the manga’s narratives. While there is not a single boy in the corpus who is victimised by a natural disaster, three girls are presented as survivors of such a catastrophe (MoD 2013; 2016; 2018). The vulnerability of women is alluded to in several stories, for example when the American girl Patty thanks Mamoru—his name literally means ‘protecting’—for his willingness to ‘protect’ her when he offers to show her around the neighbourhood (MoD 2008, p. 8). As some of the girls point out, it is the gratitude for having been saved by the SDF that motivates their interest in the military (MoD 2016, p. 15; 2018, p. 11).

Fig. 2: Haruka, the victim of an earthquake, stating her dream in class to become an SDF officer (MoD 2013, p. 1).

Considering the objective to recruit women to bolster the ranks of the SDF, the manga seek to normalise female service in the military. Interestingly, this intention is partly undermined in several of the narratives. This is arguably the case when the above-mentioned boy hero Mamoru exclaims on the sight of a female soldier: “Oh, a woman! … and such a beauty!” (MoD 2008, p. 46), thereby suggesting that the sight of female soldiers is unexpected and that their value might lie in their beauty, not their abilities. On the other hand, however, underscoring attractiveness might be considered useful with regard to stereotypical assumptions that female soldiers are not feminine or attractive (see Sato 2012, p. 6). In this sense, the trope of beauty seems to be used here not to entertain a male audience but to communicate to girls that femininity and soldiering are not mutually exclusive. Accordingly, the manga in which female service members are arguably depicted as most attractive is the one featuring a female protagonist and is therefore likely to be geared towards girl readers (MoD 2019). It is only in one instance that the line towards sexualisation is clearly crossed when the sight of a female soldier’s legs triggers one of the boys to make a catcall at her: “Super cute! Hey, do you have a boyfriend? (MoD 2010, p. 64), a remark that is left uncommented by a female teacher who is standing by.

Fig. 3: Attractive cyber security soldiers (MoD 2019, p. 26).

Like their male counterparts, female soldiers are presented throughout the corpus as positive role models, which is probably illustrated best by the statement of a girl towards her soldier mother: “A mom pilot who is strong and friendly... so admirable!” to which her mother replies “When you are big you can become one, too!” (MoD 2017, p. 46). Notably, there is an interesting conflation of soldiering and motherhood in this articulation, which will be discussed further below. Another frequent statement is the “coolness” of female (as well as male) service members. This is, for instance, articulated by children’s comments such as “Wow! Sister Yūko, your uniform is so cool!” (MoD 2013, p. 13).

Systematic analysis of uniforms and decorations suggests that female and male soldiers are presented as equals. There are twelve soldier characters in the corpus, among them three female and four male senior officers. In the stories featuring both, female and male service members, a direct comparison of them shows that in four stories the male holds a higher position in the military hierarchy (MoD 2008; 2009; 2013; 2014), whereas a woman ranks higher in three stories (MoD 2010; 2016; 2017).

A closer look, however, reveals that the difference between male and female soldiers does not lie in their rank but in their specific activities: Almost half of the manga feature one or more female soldiers working in the MoD’s public relations department (MoD 2009; 2010; 2012; 2014; 2015; 2016; 2017) while there is not a single male soldier working in this particular area. This suggests to the readers that female service is not restricted to but is most appropriate in the safe headquarters in Tokyo. Presenting female labour in the SDF in the form of regular office work might further undermine the attempt to recruit women, as the uniqueness of military service becomes backgrounded.

Furthermore, there are two manga in which the specific role of a female soldier is obscured, giving the impression that whatever she is doing cannot be too important. In the 2013 manga, for instance, the female soldier Sasaki—her last name is not given—explains the SDF’s various activities to the children while never mentioning her actual personal role. It is then the male army captain, Mamiya Junzō, who shares his experience of soldiering with the children after being introduced to them by Sasaki (MoD 2013, p. 21).

Sometimes, womanhood is discussed explicitly, often following a scene in which a child character reacts surprised when they encounter female service members. Normalisation of female service is therefore not achieved implicitly by presenting it as normal, but explicitly by discussing it: “Female Self-Defense officers work in all kinds of places” (MoD 2017, p. 44). Interestingly, it is the traditional role of women as caregivers that is alluded to when female contributions to the SDF are mentioned: “There are many women and children in disaster areas, too. There are international contributions that specifically women can do” (MoD 2014, p. 24). The depiction of female service as mainly pertaining to care and communication—such as working in the PR department—is not only gender-stereotypical but also anachronistic considering that the SDF opened the majority of positions to women as soon as 1986 when the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was implemented (Frühstück 2009, p. 6; Sato 2012, p. 9).

Motherhood is another aspect that is discussed in the context of female service. While the reconciliation of family life and military careers is stressed (“You can work here with a good feeling”) (MoD 2017, p. 50), the narratives leave little doubt that female soldiers are expected to fulfil the role of caring wife and mother perfectly. When Sora, the girl hero in the 2017 manga, invites her friends Kai and Riku to interview her soldier parents about their profession, Sora’s mother is presented as a stereotypical Japanese housewife. In the illustrations she is depicted as wearing an apron and carrying a whole basket full of food, saying “Here you go. And there’s another helping!” (MoD 2017, p. 8). The character of the mother-soldier embodies the MoD’s hope not only to recruit women to bolster the SDF’s ranks but also as future mothers who raise a new generation of soldiers (cf. Sato 2012, p. 7). This is pointing toward an interesting contradiction as in reality it is often exactly the prospect to escape the traditional obligations of women in Japanese society that motivate them to join the SDF (Frühstück 2014, p. 1).

Boys and male service members

The depiction of boy characters in the manga also varies considerably. In three cases, boy heroes are described as intelligent and knowledgeable in the introductory sections—traits with which none of the girls have been explicitly associated. This, however, does not mean that boys are generally presented in a positive light. As mentioned above, their hobbies such as soccer (MoD 2007; 2010; 2013; 2017), video games (MoD 2018), and model building (MoD 2016) are often portrayed as an indulgence and are used to suggest a lack of maturity. This is, in some instances, underscored in the illustrations of the introductory section that show them with toys in their hands.

In the 2017 manga, for instance, it is only the girl Sora who is shown without a toy while both boys hold on to a plane model and a soccer ball respectively (MoD 2017). Boys are often portrayed as distracted dreamers. Takuya, the boy hero of the 2013 manga, for example, is introduced as “interested in nothing but soccer” (MoD 2013, introductory section). There is a scene in which he admits that he hasn’t “thought about anything” (MoD 2013, p. 14) when he is supposed to interview a soldier for a school presentation together with his friend Haruka. It is then the girl, Haruka, who is asking questions and is diligently taking notes (MoD 2013, p. 15) while Takuya’s role is limited to providing comic relief. In the 2006 manga, the girl Kai rebukingly says to her male friend Sora: “You are thinking again how something could be used in a game, aren’t you?,” a question to which he self-critically admits: “I have a game mindset. Like it was all a world of games” (MoD 2006, pp. 5-6).
Throughout the corpus, the reader is presented with boys who are ignorant of international security matters, are cowards (MoD 2015, p. 30), lazy (MoD 2013, p. 2), and sleep in because of binge-watching anime the night before (MoD 2008), or fail to act on school responsibilities (MoD 2014, p. 56; 2016, p. 61). In one instance, a boy is even dubbed a “soccer idiot” by a girl (MoD 2007, p. 28). This shaming of Japanese boys is a major strategy discussed below in more detail.

Like their female counterparts, male service members are presented as role models with their physical prowess and mental strength highlighted by the illustrations. This is, however, in almost all cases, balanced with a strong emphasis on their friendliness. In the above-mentioned 2008 manga about Mamoru and Patty, the SDF soldier Mr. Hino saves Patty’s dog from being run over on a street by performing a superhero-like leap. Mamoru, who was standing by helplessly in spite of his earlier mentioned promise to protect Patty, immediately assumes that he is not a regular person but must be some kind of athlete (MoD 2008, p. 14). Hino’s masculinity, however, is not that of an intimidating fighter. His appearance in the illustrations is characterised by a classic Hollywood-like handsomeness including a charming smile. Never is the reader confronted with Japanese soldiers performing shooting drills or other war-like acts. While there is one dream scene in which a Japanese oil tanker is attacked by terrorists, the defending soldiers are drawn with blue eyes and white skin to underline that they are foreigners, not Japanese (MoD 2007, pp. 1-2).

One soldier, Yoshida, stands out with regard to his appearance as he is depicted with bulging muscles (see Fig. 4). He is introduced as a judo athlete, a friendly giant who is clad in sports clothes most of the time (MoD 2015, p. 6). The Japanese national flag on his wide chest and his role as a participant in an international judo tournament show him as a representative of Japan. This character probably illustrates best the image of Japan the MoD wants to convey: Japan as a friendly giant that is ready to defend itself and secure international peace together with its American ally.

Fig. 4 : Yoshida, the friendly giant (MoD 2015, p. 6).

Gamification and historical revisionism

As mentioned above, games and hobbies play important roles in the narratives and are often connected to boyhood in a negative vein. This is probably illustrated best by the following scene of the 2007 manga that features two fantasy characters in service of the “Peace Preservation Patrol.” One of them exclaims in his last scene: “Wh.. what?! Another boy is crazy about video games? Alright! It’s about making as many children as possible interested in the defense of Japan and ballistic missile defense!” (MoD 2007, p. 62). Video games are here clearly presented as the epitome of juvenile distractedness and as antagonistic to the sense of responsibility that supposedly comes with an interest in national defense.
There is, however, some ambivalence as games sometimes serve to connect the children’s lives with the SDF. In the 2018 manga, we see the boy character smiling while thinking: “I couldn’t imagine that the SDF which has only been present in games has come so close to me in the last couple of months” (MoD 2018, p. 31).

In some instances, games and hobbies are actually encouraged—as long as they deal with fighting or the SDF. In several cases, they are presented as legitimate sources of knowledge. One boy in the 2017 manga, for example, is presented as a military nerd (miri ota) who is anxiously waiting for the release of a superhero anime (super sentai) titled “Defense squad Akatsuki” (MoD 2017, p. 5). Accordingly, he is introduced positively in the introductory section: “Through his favourite anime his knowledge about the Self-Defense Forces is outstanding” (MoD 2017, p. 3).

As Frühstück observes, games and play have traditionally been used in military PR to equate boys and soldiers by combining and interchanging them while at the same time gamifying the military (Frühstück 2017). While the former strategy suggests that soldiering is natural and desirable for boys, gamification serves to trivialise the military. Combining and interchanging boys and soldiers can be identified in one instance in which a boy hero connects with a soldier via a shared interest in collecting SDF plane models (MoD 2016). This is further stressed when the shopkeeper of the model store points out that the soldier “has also been coming here since he was a boy!” (MoD 2016, 6). Another instance is the last illustration of the 2017 manga showing the three child heroes facing their future selves. While their future adult selves are clad in SDF uniforms, the children carry a ball that signifies their childhood (MoD 2017, p. 61).

Gamification of the military is created when boy characters play war video games or collect SDF models. It is, however, most salient when war is connected to sports. The trope of sports, such as soccer and judo, is frequently used as a metaphor that normalises and trivialises war by equating military violence to the benign rivalry of sports. One example of this can be found in the 2014 manga when a boy learns about the united command of the Air, Sea, and Ground Self-Defense Forces and says: “Like the Japanese soccer team. Cool!” (MoD 2014, p. 19).

The conflation of war and sports is especially marked in the 2007 manga that revolves around the boy hero Rikuto who is a centre-back of a soccer team. When explaining the function of ballistic missile defense systems (BMD), his father compares it to defense in soccer. Anxious about the vulnerability of his team against long-range shots, Rikuto then ponders over possible applications of BMD principles in soccer. This equation of military weaponry and soccer is further underscored by an illustration of a ball morphing into a missile. The ball-missile’s destructiveness is revealed by the fact that Rikuto gets hospitalised after being hit by it in an attempt to defend his team  (MoD 2007, p. 12; see Fig. 5).


Fig. 5: Rikuto getting ‘shot’ on the soccer field (MoD 2007, p. 12).

This conflation of war and soccer is highly problematic and misleading since the aim of national security is to deter enemies and avoid conflict while in soccer the act of attacking is natural and desirable. While this might not have been intended by the authors, the trope of sports normalises and trivialises military aggression by equating it with recreational activity. Furthermore, it perverts the ideals of sportsmanship such as peaceful competition and international understanding. This is also problematic in the light of the state’s strategy in pre-war and wartime Japan to use sports to control the bodies of the Japanese and militarise them (Kiku 2007, pp. 45-46; Manzenreiter 2012). As it seems like Rikuto is deliberately stopping the ball with his own body, this further creates an allusion to self-sacrifice, a central concept in pre-war and wartime education.
Communicating historical revisionism is another strategy that is partly related to games and sports. This is employed, for example, by the name of the aforementioned fictional anime series. “Akatsuki” signifies a real warship of the imperial navy and is also the name of a controversial manga series of the 1960s that glorifies the Pacific War. [6]

As political thinker Maruyama Masao observed after the war, international sports competitions served many Japanese as an outlet for nationalist and militaristic sentiments after defeat (Maruyama 1950, p. 16). Whether this holds true for Japan today might be up to debate, but the authors of the 2015 manga seem to use sports in an attempt to stir up such emotions. When a judo match in 1995 between Yoshida’s senior (senpai) and an American who is now serving as an official of the US Department of Defense is mentioned, the American states: “We both had our countries behind our backs and because it was the 50th anniversary of the end of the war it was a fight that neither of us could lose” (MoD 2015, p. 9). This statement interpreting the sports match as a re-enactment of the war is attributed to the American side but his former Japanese opponent is shown nodding in agreement.  

Another symbol that is problematic in the context of national defense is the cherry blossom (sakura) which is employed in the 2006 manga in the form of the “spirit of the sakura” fantasy character. The sakura is not only a benign symbol of Japanese aesthetics but, in the context of the military, refers to the ultranationalist ideology of the 1930s and 1940s, specifically the act of self-sacrifice for the tennō in the Asia-Pacific War (Ohnuki-Tierney 2002, pp. 102-124).

Shaming, validation and the promise of love

Perhaps the most effective strategies applied in the SDF PR manga to influence their child readership aim at their insecurities. These are either gender-specific, resulting from their young age, or, in one instance, from a state of liminality. As mentioned above, boys are often compared unfavourably to soldiers; for example, when Mamoru who is supposed to “defend” Patty fails to do so. There is a subtle shaming of boy characters at play in many of the narratives that target their cowardice, sluggishness, lack of responsibility, and interest in national defense. Mamoru himself articulates this: “I as a Japanese know less about the SDF than even Patty. That’s embarrassing!” (MoD 2008, p. 33).

Corresponding to shaming, a strategy of validation can be identified. Children are validated in the narratives for learning about national defense, sharing knowledge about the SDF with others, or for deciding to become soldiers in the future. The source of validation are persons of authority such as soldiers (“Very astute! You understand it well,” MoD 2010, p. 73), teachers (MoD 2014; 2019), and older family members (2017, p. 49), or peers (MoD 2017). In one of the manga featuring children writing an article on the SDF, the teacher remarks approvingly: “It seems like the two of you made a good experience. Let’s copy the newspaper and distribute it in other classes!” (MoD 2014, p. 59). In another story, a teacher underwrites the girl hero’s school essay about her dream to “defend Japan” together with her brother: “Go for it, future Self-Defense Officer!” (MoD 2019, p. 30; see Fig. 6).

Fig. 6: “Go for it, future Self-Defense Officer!” (MoD 2019, 30).

Love and heterosexual romance also play prominent roles in this context, most notably in those categorised as the boy-girl-type. The reader is shown instances of soldier couples (MoD 2008; 2017), boy and girl characters falling in love with each other (MoD 2007; 2008; 2018), or having a crush on soldiers (MoD 2008; 2010; 2015; 2017). In these narratives, romance is often utilised as a strategy to beautify the SDF—with love underscoring their peaceful nature—and to subtly exploit youths’ emotional needs and insecurities with regard to romance.

The military and love are most intimately connected in the 2010 manga that revolves around a boy and a girl who are mirrored by an adult soldier couple. An instance of platonic love is featured prominently on the cover with a boy holding the hand of an older person in uniform (his older brother as the reader learns later). In the following introductory section, we see the boy, and a girl together with a male and a female soldier lying on a lawn and holding hands thereby forming a circle (see Fig. 7). This harmonious depiction of two children and two young adults can be interpreted as an allusion to family and thereby communicates three messages: Firstly, the SDF is a harmonious organisation based on love and friendship; secondly, the SDF and civilians—here represented by the two children—maintain or should maintain a tight, harmonious relationship; thirdly, while the military is represented by adults, the civilians are shown as children. This is problematic, as the equation of civilians with children who act in accordance with feelings of filial piety (kōkō) was a common trope in wartime Japan. While this might be unintended and is certainly not understood by children, the military is nonetheless presented in a superior position vis à vis the child-civilians. In reality, however, it is the SDF that is subjected to civilian control, a fact that is obscured and distorted in this narrative.

Fig. 7: Soldiers and children holding hands (MoD 2010, introductory section).

In most narratives, however, romance and love are not presented as unconditional but seem to result from the child heroes’ willingness to learn about the SDF and display military behaviour. This behaviour is, at the same time, described as a passage to adulthood that is enabled and inspired by soldiers. Being loved and becoming an adult are tightly connected. This is most clearly exemplified in the 2007 manga in which Rikuto, as mentioned above, is hospitalised after getting shot by the ball-missile on the metaphorical battleground of the soccer field. When he regains consciousness, he and his female friend Kaira share a romantic moment when they exchange a deep glance until Kaira suddenly pulls out a Defense White Book (of all things) (MoD 2007, 14; see Fig. 8). Her attraction is, as is suggested, the validation of his brave participation in the soccer-battle. While the situation suggests that she takes out the book to avoid awkwardness, national defense and romance still become further connected in this scene. The traditional gender roles of war are also easily recognised in the clichéd depiction of Rikuto as the wounded soldier and Kaira as the caring wife who anxiously guards his bed.

Fig. 8: Kaira and Rikuto in the hospital (MoD 2007, p. 14).

Romance further plays a prominent role in the 2018 manga that tells the story of the boy Taichi and the girl Yui, who meet at an SDF event. Their common experience of the event heightens not only their interest in the military but leads them to find their destiny: to grow up, become soldiers themselves, and fall in love with each other.


Fig. 9: Yui and Taichi (MoD 2018, p. 28).

Another important function of romance is to expound the US-Japan alliance in two narratives that symbolise the closeness of the two nations. This is clearly the case in the above-mentioned story about the Japanese boy Mamoru and the American exchange student Patty, who is shown as a pretty and confident girl who speaks Japanese fluently. It is implied that she is initially attracted to the Japanese soldier Hino, who saved her dog, while Mamoru is depicted as a jealous boy who is in love with Patty but falls short of his name’s destiny: to ‘protect’. His jealousy and feelings of inferiority vis-à-vis the dashing soldier become apparent when he exclaims with great frustration: “I will become a man who is serving Japan and the world just like Mr. Hino and Mrs. Honda!”

Fig. 10: Jealous Mamoru vowing to become a soldier (MoD 2008, p. 68).

It is, of course, Mamoru she is in love with but only after he finally starts to fulfil his destiny to protect others when he helps an elderly lady to cross a busy road. This is not the only instance of love and attraction in this narrative. As mentioned above, it is implied that Patty is indeed somewhat attracted to Hino while Mamoru also seems to be attracted to the female soldier Honda, who is Hino’s girlfriend (MoD 2008, p. 46). That Honda platonically loves Patty is revealed when she says “Now that I’m hearing your voice, I’m happy!” during a phone call with her (MoD 2008, p. 66).

The strategic use of romance is aimed primarily at young male readers’ insecurities and depicts military service as a way to validation and love from girls and also as a passage to adulthood. Interestingly, two out of the three manga that feature romance deal with the US-Japanese alliance. On a symbolic level, the desirability of the American partner is shown by presenting him in the form of a white girl, while it is the Japanese side—presented by a Japanese boy—that needs to grow up and take responsibility in order to become a respected member of world society.

Exploiting insecurities related to liminality is another strategy utilised to influence child readers. This is the case in the story about the17 years old high school girl Kawanishi Airi who worries about her upcoming ‘summer of decision’ (honki no natsu) in the last year of high school—a term that she has learned from her seniors (senpai). In an inner monologue, she articulates that she sees herself “neither as an adult nor as a child” and dreads being asked “Did you already decide on your future direction?” (MoD 2019, p. 1). By mentioning her senpai as well as imagining others interrogating her about her choice of career, the trope of peer pressure is used to make the child reader, who will face a similar situation, identify with Airi. Additional pressure is put on her, as she is obliged to write a report during her holidays on a topic of her choice (jiyū kenkyū). Airi’s older brother who studies at the National Defense Academy (NDA) points out the benefits of a career in the SDF to her thereby helping Airi to solve both predicaments: To find a topic for her report and her future career choice.

Fig. 11: “Did you already decide on your future direction?” (MoD 2019, p. 1).


Analysis of a corpus of recent MoD manga consisting of 14 volumes published between 2006 through 2019 supports the hypothesis that the Japanese conservative government is targeting Japanese elementary-school-age children in an attempt to foster approving attitudes toward Japan’s military. This can be inferred from the examination of the manga’s child character cast which reveals that a majority of them are elementary school children in classes five and six representing the eleven to twelve years age bracket. Unlike the Prince Pickles series of the 1990s, their stories do not discuss the topic of security in imaginary worlds and, in contrast to older MoD manga prior to 2006, female teen characters are not depicted in a sexualised vein to entertain an adult male audience. The manga’s contents, narrative structure, and discursive strategies such as gamification, the combination of shaming and validating boy characters—notably including validation by love and romance—as well as addressing liminality suggest that the manga are, in fact, aimed toward child audiences.

Strategies used often pertain to gender as shaming and romance are connected to the trope of manhood that is, in turn, achieved by participating in or at least approving of the military. While boy characters are often portrayed as ignorant, cowardly, and irresponsible, the narratives suggest that these shortcomings can be overcome by learning about the SDF and taking up military role models. In this way, boys can become good men who enjoy societal approval and are worthy objects of romantic love. It is noteworthy that the shaming of boy characters is especially marked (but not limited to) two manga about a Japanese boy and an American girl (MoD 2008; 2015). In contrast to much of post-war popular culture narrating the US-Japan (military) relationship, Japan is here represented by boys, not girls, hinting at a more assertive self-image that the MoD aims to disseminate.

The expectation of boys to grow up and act responsibly is here symbolically equated with the suggested necessity for Japan to become a mature nation that takes responsibility for its national defense, albeit in tight cooperation with the American ally whose attractiveness is exemplified by the blond and bright-eyed girl characters featuring in these stories.
The girl main characters are often associated with victimhood which nourishes their interest in the SDF. Girl readers are targeted with mixed messages, as the manga suggest to them a career in the military while at the same time reminding them of traditional gender-related expectations such as the role of a caring wife and mother and the importance of physical beauty. Furthermore, analysis of female soldier characters reveals that they are, on the one hand, shown as formally equal while, on the other hand, in careers in safe areas that are in line with traditional gender expectations, such as care and communication, are presented as proper occupations for women. By this, the goal to recruit women for military service becomes somewhat undermined.

Nationalism, historical revisionism, and militarism in the manga can be considered relatively subtle. Some elements, however, are highly problematic, most notably the presence of a child soldier as a role model in the 2006 manga. Normalisation and whitewashing of war by equating military conflict with sports is another strategy that is misleading children about the nature of war. One instance that is especially troubling is the equation and re-enactment of the Pacific War in the form of a match between an American and a Japanese judoka (“neither of us could lose”) which serves to create a continuity of the imperial army and today’s SDF and might even be interpreted as a desire for revenge for defeat in the Pacific War. The manga, on the other hand, abstain from chauvinist nationalism and blatant glorification of the imperial army and repeatedly mention the value of peace and international cooperation.

With regard to the changes in the manga during the time span reflected in the corpus, a distinct gap between the first two manga (MoD 2006, 2007) and the later publications can be identified that seems to reflect a change in strategy: While the two older manga utilise fantasy and time travel to replace soldiers with fantasy characters, the newer ones feature soldiers and show the SDF in a realistic way.

Admittedly, due to the shortcomings of the manga as PR material identified above, their impact is likely to be limited, especially in comparison to military manga produced by private manga publishers which partly happens in cooperation with the MoD (Hall 2021). While the accessibility of the manga on the MoD homepage is high, it is unclear whether a substantial number of children will actually read the manga, even considering that they will be promoted by MoD PR staff at open house events and visits in schools. Yet, the narratives and strategies identified above could potentially also be employed in other more powerful formats, such as social media. The strategies utilised to exploit gender-related insecurities of youths pertaining to social acceptance, the desire to be loved, and their liminal state in order to instill into them state-sponsored views might prove to be effective if the material could be disseminated more effectively.

As argued above, these findings should also be seen in the context of recent reforms to moral education. This suggests that the Japanese government—in a larger strategic shift—seems increasingly to  aim discourse on contentious political issues, such as the military and historical revisionism, at children of elementary school age (6 to 10 years). What might be most momentous for Japanese society—and dangerous some might say—is the children’s repeated exposure to a multitude of state-controlled discourses, including those of MoD-produced manga, military manga, and anime published by private content creators, moral education textbooks, and others that reproduce and transport the ever-same ideological mix of remilitarisation, nationalism, historical revisionism, and traditional gender norms.


I would like to thank Carolin Fleischer-Heininger for valuable and helpful suggestions on this paper.


1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObkxzmrQfXY.

2. The MoD kid’s site can be accessed at: https://www.mod.go.jp/j/kids/.

3. These are conceptualised as “discourse entanglements” in CDA (Jäger & Maier 2009, 47). To improve readability, the somewhat awkward terminology of CDA (e.g. “discourse fragment” for “text”) is minimised in this paper.

4. The title seems to be a reference to famous yakuza novel and film “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” (jingi naki tatakai). An outline of the narrative can be found here: https://booklog.jp/item/1/4062570025.

5. Three manga without this section have been excluded from this step of analysis (MoD 2006; 2008; 2019).

6. A description of the manga series can be found here.


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About the Author

Felix Spremberg is a research associate at the Department of Japanese Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. He received his Ph.D. in Japanese Studies from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich for his research on social democratic actors in Japanese politics. He can be contacted at felix.spremberg@posteo.de.

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