FUJIYOSHIDA, Japan—When Nobuaki Watarai joined Japan’s elite airborne brigade, mobile phones barely existed and the prospect of conflict was remote.
Today, the 51-year-old is still parachuting out of planes and helicopters in training drills and his country believes it is facing an increased risk of a military clash.
Warrant Officer Watarai can’t remember much about his first jump—it was in 1986. “I know I was very nervous,” he said recently while preparing for his 133rd training jump near Mount Fuji.
Warrant Officer Nobuaki Watarai, 51 years old, addresses his brigade before their recent training jump near Mount Fuji. Photo: Andrew Faulk for The Wall Street Journal
Like the rest of Japan, the country’s military is getting older—and a shortage of young recruits has raised concerns among defense planners about maintaining the strength of its forces.
A declining population and a tight labor market have made it tough for many industries to find new hires. The military has been among the hardest hit. In 2017, it was only able to recruit 77% of its planned intake of male fixed-term personnel.
Around 37% of Japan’s active-duty military were over 40 years old last year, compared with 9% in the U.S. in 2016, the latest available data.
If current enlistment trends persist, Japan’s shortage of younger troops could threaten its ability to engage in prolonged combat. Military officials say there is no immediate problem with the relatively high age of personnel, but they are concerned about the difficulty in finding new recruits.
Older active-duty personnel make up a far greater proportion of Japan’s military compared with the U.S.
25 or younger
26 to 30
31 to 35
41 or older
36 to 40
Japan, October 2017
U.S., September 2016
While modern warfare has created a need for more experienced personnel to use advanced technology such as cyberweapons, former senior military officials say younger troops are preferable for combat.
“In an environment in which the enemy is shooting at you, military activities require strength, the ability to concentrate and durability—the kind of attributes that strongly favor youthfulness,” said a retired senior army officer.
The military is confronting the demographic challenge just as it faces a growing risk of conflict. Increased military activity by China, Russia and North Korea were concerns noted by the Defense Ministry in its recent annual review of the regional security environment. The ministry warned about a rise in “gray-area” situations in the region which are neither fully peaceful nor actively contested.
The U.S. is committed to help defend Japan in the event of a conflict, under a bilateral security treaty. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also loosened restrictions on military assistance to allies, making its readiness a potential issue for the U.S. as well. Mr. Abe wants to bolster the military by altering Japan’s pacifist constitution to state the country’s right to possess armed forces.
Japan’s target age group for military recruitment of 18- to 26-year-olds peaked at over 17 million around 1993 and fell to 11 million by 2016, according to the Ministry of Defense.
To adjust to that demographic shift, the military has encouraged young personnel to become noncommissioned officers. That has enabled more to serve through to retirement—an appealing option for many Japanese who favor jobs for life—and resulted in an older Self-Defense Forces, as the country’s military is known.
The strength of the Japanese economy has made it harder for military recruiters, as job seekers choose other careers, a Defense Ministry planning officer said. Above, members of the 1st Airborne Brigade. Photo: Andrew Faulk for The Wall Street Journal
To try to lure younger recruits, Japan’s military has switched its main advertising outlet from television to the internet. It runs a YouTube channel called “Lifehack” that showcases skills learned in the military, such as how to stay afloat in water by trapping air in clothes.
Japan’s relatively strong economy makes it harder to recruit because many job seekers shun the military when other careers are plentiful, said Yasuhiro Miyamoto, a planning officer at the Ministry of Defense.
“Economic booms give us an extremely hard time,” he said.
Despite staff shortages, the Defense Ministry said it tries to find the right balance of youth and experience for each military role. As personnel get older, they generally transition to roles that are less physically demanding.
Japan's military has fewer young recruits, increasing its dependency on older personnel.
Japan’s military by age
Junior enlisted personnel*
Technological advances such as smaller and lighter equipment offset some of the impact of having an older fighting force. The Defense Ministry is studying exoskeletons for soldiers to reduce their physical burden.
In other measures to try to boost enlistment, the military is raising the maximum age for enlisted-personnel applicants to 32 from 26, has lifted retirement ages, and increased targets for the ratio of the female personnel to 9% or more in 2030 from 6.5% in 2018.
The military is also developing hardware that needs less manpower. The navy is planning to build two new frigates that can be operated by 100 sailors this year, smaller than its conventional destroyers, which require about 200 crew. The aim is to introduce less costly vessels can serve multiple roles, such as minesweeping, while also saving manpower.
Warrant Officer Watarai serves in the 1st Airborne Brigade as troop leader. He is also a mentor for the unit: With the highest rank among enlisted troops in the brigade—he is command sergeant major—he provides guidance to troops and does administrative work.
As a student he was a keen athlete and considered joining the fire service or military, he said. His mother helped persuade him to join the military, which she saw as a less dangerous career choice during a period of low geopolitical tension.
Japanese paratroopers prepare to board for a training jump near Mount Fuji. Photo: Andrew Faulk for The Wall Street Journal
Warrant Officer Watarai expects he would be sent to the front lines in a conflict. He still takes part in his brigade’s notoriously demanding 100 kilometer (62 mile) day-and-night marches while carrying around 66 pounds of equipment.
Kazuhisa Matsumoto, another 51-year-old warrant officer in the brigade, said he packs sprays to relieve muscle pain on the long marches.
“I didn’t do this when I was young,” he said, recalling his 32 years in the military. “But my muscles started to remain stiff and I became slower, so I thought I’d better do something about it.”
The men will soon reach the retirement age for their level of service, when they are 54. Warrant Officer Watarai said it is more the mental challenges that get tougher as he gets older.
“Equipment such as communication devices and weapons are being rapidly renewed and computerized,” he said. “Our younger colleagues learn quickly but it takes more time for us.”
Japanese paratroopers descend after jumping from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in exercises in Fujiyoshida. Photo: Andrew Faulk for The Wall Street Journal