Ageing in Japan

Ready, cane, fire

Japan’s army is greying. It may have to draft more robots

BRIGHT YOUNG faces gaze out from a recruitment poster on the thick grey walls of the Defence Ministry in central Tokyo. But in greying Japan, finding enough youngsters to fill the ranks has become, by the ministry’s own admission, “an imminent challenge”. The number of Japanese between 18 and 26 years old, long the prime recruiting pool, peaked at 17m in 1994. It has since fallen to 11m. By 2050 it will sink below 8m. “Young blood is what all militaries need, and it’s exactly what we’re lacking,” says Yamaguchi Noboru, a retired lieutenant-general in the Self-Defence Forces (SDF), as the country calls its army, in deference to its pacifist constitution.

The SDF has missed its recruiting targets every year since 2014, reaching just 72% of its goal in 2018. It fields only 227,000 of the 247,000 troops it budgets for, a shortfall of 8%. Among the lowest ranks, the gap is over 25%. Low pay, harsh conditions and the limited prestige of soldiering in a peacenik nation with little unemployment always made recruiting hard, but demography compounds the difficulties. The inverted population pyramid ought to worry Japan as much as Chinese expansionism or North Korean missiles, argues Robert Eldridge, an American former military official and the author of a book in Japanese on demography and the armed forces: “Demographic change is not just an economic issue, it’s a national-defence issue.”

The army is using many of the same strategies as private companies to cope with an ageing workforce. “Just like the rest of Japan, the SDF is trying to see what AI and robotics…