TOKYO -- When eight sailors refused to join the 500-member Japanese force sweeping mines in the Persian Gulf, officials of the Self Defense Forces were relieved.
"It's fewer than we expected," Shigeru Hatakeyama, chief of the Defense Policy Bureau, told Japanese reporters.
After presenting the reasons given by the eight members (five said they physically could not tolerate the voyage, and the rest, including one who was about to get married, could not obtain family consent), the SDF officials denied any suggestion that the refusal meant low morale among the minesweeping sailors.
But the public viewed the phenomenon as an obvious reaction by young men who had been bred in an affluent, avowedly pacifist society and probably had joined the service without the slightest thought of having anything to do with a war.
For years, the SDF, Japan's army, has been suffering from chronic personnel shortages. But the number of new recruits took a particularly sharp drop last year compared with the year before.
The total number of recruits who entered the service, mainly as privates in the Ground Self Defense Forces and at comparable ranks of the Maritime and Air Defense Forces, dropped to 8,505, down more than 50 percent from 20,261 the previous year.
At the National Defense Academy in Yokosuka, 19 percent of the 494 graduating seniors chose to go into private business instead of a military career, the highest percentage ever and a sharp increase from 14 percent a year earlier.
No law requires academy graduates to take up military service, but in the school's early decades few chose not to. The trend toward private careers has arisen in recent years.
With the shortage of recruits increasing every year, the Defense Agency has decided to restructure the ground force and reduce it from the current 180,000 troops to 150,000 in the next defense plan.
"It's the negative side of affluence," said an official in charge of personnel at the Defense Agency. "Poor housing, low salary, plus the so-called three K's have made the job unattractive." The three K's are kitanai (filthy), kitsui (tough) and kiken (dangerous).
The outlook for recruiting seems equally grim.
Ten years from now, the number of Japanese 18 to 24 years old will have dropped from the current 4.2 million to 3 million. Facing that trend, the SDF raised the age limit for recruits to 27 from 25 last year.
The SDF also has started a campaign to make the military more attractive.
Posters and pamphlets promote a softer and trendier image compared with the hard-core poster of eight years ago, which featured the rising sun flag flapping behind a soldier in training.
The latest recruiting poster looks more like an ad in a fashion magazine. It shows a teen-age girl and boy standing in their pajamas. "Is peacefulness so natural?" the message asks.
And there is now a comic book aimed at attracting young people to the army.
"Prince Pickles, a Journey to Peace" is the title of the comic book's story of young Prince Pickles of Paprika, who awakens to reality and acknowledges the need for an army only after being attacked by an invader.
"We're simply trying to go along with the trend; otherwise, we probably won't appeal to the young people nowadays," said an officer at the personnel bureau of the Defense Agency.
Last year, the arms budget was reduced to permit an increase in the budget for improving military housing.
Regulations that forced almost all low-ranking, unmarried officers to share crowded dormitories also have been eased. Facilities such as swimming pools and saunas are part of the services' construction plans.
At the National Defense Academy, the doors will be open to female applicants starting next year, and entrance exams will be simplified.
Despite such efforts, however, the SDF is left with the most difficult problem: having to define its role and provide a sense of purpose to its newcomers.
The SDF was created in 1954, though the country's post-World War II pacifist constitution renounced the use of any military force. The legitimacy of maintaining such an army has since been a subject of political debate and public challenge.
Though the army is backed up by the world's third-largest defense budget, it was not allowed to send troops overseas until April, when Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu dispatched a minesweeping force to the Persian Gulf, a decision that took the government months to reach.
Officials at the Defense Agency argued that since an invasion of Japan by another country is not inconceivable, the SDF has a strong purpose.
To give a more assertive role to an army that has long been widely regarded as mainly a disaster-relief team, the Japanese government is trying to find a place for it in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
That idea is expected to face opposition during the next Diet session, which starts next month, but in a poll conducted by the prime minister's office soon after the shooting started in the gulf war, 46 percent supported the SDF's joining U.N. peacekeeping operations, with the understanding that the Japanese troops would maintain a purely defensive posture.
"We have to think about where the SDF stands among the Japanese people," said an official in charge of education and training at the Defense Agency. "The way to make the job attractive is to try to win respect for the work done by the SDF members and find a proper place for the SDF itself."