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Maintaining an exclusively defense-oriented policy.
To avoid becoming a major military power that might pose a threat to the world.
Refraining from the development of nuclear weapons, and to refuse to allow nuclear weapons inside Japanese territory.
Ensuring civilian control.
Maintaining security arrangements with the United States.
Building up defensive capabilities within moderate limits.
Much of these policies arose from the aftermath of World War II and Imperial Japan, especially the rampant abuses and societal domination of the Imperial Armed Forces. The nuclear weapon policy in particular is a reaction to the fact that Japan is the only nation to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons. The JSDF is never officially referred to as a "military", "army", "air force", "navy" or any other similar term.
Contrary to both the title of this article and what you see in anime and Sci-Fi movies, Japan doesn't develop advanced weapons technology (primarily relying on the US for weapons) and is notCrazy-Prepared for an attack by Godzilla or any other large monster. It does, however, develop many of its own armaments, including the Type 90 Kyu-maru MBT and Howa Type 89 Assault Rifle.
On the other hand, the Maritime branch is quite large, with lots and lots of destroyers, some more advanced modifications of the AEGIS-capable US Arleigh Burke-class. Japan has begun construction of helicopter carriers, but is not allowed to have actual aircraft carriers due to the self-defense laws. Their way around that is to simply designate the carriers as destroyersnote The word they use actually translates as "Escort", but most of their previous ships of that designation were equivalent to American Destroyers. Construction has even recently begun on a pair of "destroyers" that are similar in size to World War II aircraft carriers (and, in fact, larger than many WW2 aircraft carriers). Furthermore, unlike the Ground SDF, which conscientiously distances itself from its World War 2 era predecessor, the Maritime SDF retains a large number of traditions from the Imperial Navy, including its conspicuous war flag, which gives an appearance of a Suspiciously Similar Substitute, especially from the perspective of Japan's neighbors. Maritime SDF ships also are invariably named after famous IJN warships, though differentiated by the names always being written in hiragana rather than kanji. Japan's defense budget is the fifth-largest in the world, and it has "breakout capacity"—i.e. it could start building nuclear weapons at a moment's notice and have results within mere months if it wanted to.note But they don't and if you know anything about World War IIyou should know why.
Despite the focus on "self-defense", the JSDF has participated in the second Iraq war and in UN Peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, East Timor, Mozambique and Golan Heights as the LDP leans more and more to the right and starts developing a tendency for historical revisionism... well, maybe. It is certainly true that the Japanese have been struggling over the use of the SDF in "peacekeeping" roles, as the laws governing "self-defense" never really went into being the third party. What the change of government will do remains to be seen. It should be noted that many of the restrictions on the JSDF are based on interpretation of what constitutes an offensive force or weapon, so in theory it would be easy for the government to change those interpretations.
Japan is currently looking for some new fighter jets. It wantsthe F-22 ultimately, (good luck with that, as the US has made it clear that nobodygets F-22 exports) but is currently evaluating some of the 4.5 generation fighters (and the F-35), although they're also making their own stealth fighter.
And speaking of exports, Japanese-designed weapons such as tanks and aircraft (and even the JSDF's small arms) are never meant to be for export because of laws restricting defense exports. But recent events from Japan are showing that the Ministry of Defense is loosening the restrictions in the wake of having Patriot missiles in Japan to defend itself from North Korean (mainly) ballistic missiles. Surplus JSDF trucks and jeeps are acceptable exports, though.
The JSDF in fiction:
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Anime and Manga
In Patlabor, the JSDF has the best Humongous Mecha in the country and occasionally cooperate with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Captain Fuwa of the JSDF is also a high school friend of police Captain Nagumo, who sometimes calls out favors from her.
Given that the JSSDF has extensive first-hand experience on exactly how futile fighting something that possesses an AT-Field can be, they're quite justified in their strategy of "Kill the pilots". The fact that they fail to kill Shinji and Asuka leads to their deaths.
Justifiable given the circumstances at the time. The Japanese government had just learned that they were sandwiched between an Omniscient Council of Vagueness that wanted to "evolve" humanity by killing them all and a Manipulative Bastard who wanted the same thing so his soul could rejoin his deceased wife. With the promise of The End of the World as We Know It, no idea when it was actually going to happen, the immediate threat of the Angels gone, and no idea just how many people were complicit in the plot, the JSSDF's only real practical option was to sterilize everyone and everything as quickly as possible.
They also gain an extra 'S' in their acronym (becoming the JSSDF), for the "Japanese Strategic Self Defense Force", which might indicate a move to a full military post-Second Impact.
It should perhaps be noted that NERV, the organization the main characters work for, is not part of the JSSDF. It is instead a branch of a global organization that is technically UN-affiliated.
Digimon Tamers has the JSDF attempt to engage hostile digimon and the D-Reaper, but they're largely mere annoyances to the ridiculously powerful monsters.
In Zipang, a modern JMSDF Aegis destroyer named the JDS Miraitravels back in time to the Battle of Midway. The Mirai is equipped with Tomahawk missiles, implying that the future Japan had at least slightly loosened its definition of "offensive weaponry."
Notwithstanding the armaments, the crew of the Mirai are thoroughly indoctrinated with the ethos of the postwar SDF and are reluctant to cast their lot with the World War II era Japanese, who, in turn, are both suspicious and fearful of them. The key theme of both the manga and the anime (although not as developed in the latter) is how the postwar Japanese onboard the Mirai are forced to approach, if not necessarily cross, the Moral Event Horizon.
801 T.T.S. Airbats focuses on an all-female stunt flying squadron in the JASDF.
In Sentou Yousei Yukikaze, the JSDF is no longer "self-defensive"; not only do they maintain an aircraft carrier (named Admiral 56 in reference to the legendary Isoroku Yamamoto), they are explicitly referred to as the Japanese Navy. Probably because if there was ever a good reason to repeal Article 9, an Alien Invasion would be one.
The JSDF or their counterparts appear in Gundam twice: in G Gundam, Major Ulube Ishikawa tries to fight off the Devil Gundam with their mobile suits but failed. Sure, Japan now became Neo Japan, but it is possible that the Neo Japanese military is the future SDF.
The JSDF is mentioned once in Gundam 00 as being asked by the US military which is the main part of the Union to join the exercise with the Human Reform League and the Advanced European Union. Later in The Movie, one of the Solbraves squadron was a Japanese Brave pilot named Akira Takei, which implies he used to be a member of the JSDF.
The primary goal of Ushio Namada, a junior high school student and protagonist of the manga Satou Kashi no Dangan wa Uchinukenai (A Lollipop or a bullet), is to join the SDF after she graduates, mostly to escape the dull existence of living in a small mountain town.
In Gasaraki, the Gowa family is developing a secret weapon system for the JSDF, but there is also realistic debate within the government about the JSDF sending troops to help the U.S. in a Gulf War style conflict. (The Gowa family engineered this, allegedly to help test the mecha, but even that is just a cover-up for their real goal, investigating a strange occurrence where the war is taking place.)
In Yomigaeru Sora Rescue Wings, the main character is assigned to a JSDF Air Rescue squadron at Komatsu, where he learns the ins and outs of becoming a SAR pilot.
In Un-Go, the JSDF operates a militia-type, paramilitary law enforcement unit called the Public Security Force (or known by its abbreviation, PSC), a former unit owned by a PMC company in Episode 0.. Likewise, the JSDF has an anti-riot/guerrilla/insurgency office called the Insurrection Countermeasures Office.
Makiro Serada use to be a JGSDF officer before he relocated to Southeast Asia and be a tourist guide there. Of course, an extremist faction in the JGSDF and in the government ordered him to do this in order to allow the Constitution to be revised and allow JSDF forces to be deployed out of the country after he knows that fellow Japanese were in harm's way, putting any legal challenges to Article 9 as a check and balance against such a move to non-existence.
One of the antagonist factions in Jormungand is the Special Research team, which is comprised of JGSDF personnel. They are "officially" under the control of the Defense Intelligence Headquarters, which is the Japanese signals intelligence agency, but at this point they're practically a law unto themselves.
Two JASDF F-15 fighters show up in Fate/Zero to investigate on the disturbance in Fuyuki City (namely Caster summoning freakin' Chtulhu). One is downed by the monster, while the other is hijacked by Berserker and used to fight Cthulhu, shooting down Gilgamesh spaceship and attack Saber before Lancer shoots it down.
Though only a bit role in the series, the JSDF supplies Homura Akemi with heavy weapons (including rocket artillery) in Puella Magi Madoka Magica. OK, the "supplying" really should be called "stealing", but Homura's magical power is only making Time Stand Still, which doesn't lend itself to a weapon to fight Witches by itself.
A JASDF fighter catches Rei & Takashi on its cameras while doing a flyby in the anime of Highschool of the Dead. JGSDF forces are also seen securing power plants and setting up blockades to hold off the zombies. The final episode shows a JMSDF destroyer group shooting down 3 out of 4 nuclear missiles that have been launched in a panic thanks to the Zombie Apocalypse (the fourth missile was supposed to be taken out by an American ship, but that one got zombified). In the manga (which goes beyond the anime's ending), they also rescue a few survivors from a zombie-infested mall.
Godzilla and every other monster movie set in (postwar) Japan, obviously.
The live-action adaptation of Rescue Wings, which is also set at Komatsu, and featured plenty of cooperation from the JSDF.
JMSDF warships and their crews made an appearance in Battleship.
Pacific Rim has a literal example of a Kaiju Defense Force with a Japanese giant robot (Coyote Tango) fighting Kaiju. On the streets of Tokyo, no less.
The JMSDF and the JASDF heavily in Tom Clancy's Debt Of Honor where they unknowingly serve as The Dragon to China, ironically.
In the Axis of Time series of novels by John Birmingham, another JMSDF missile destroyer is among the multinational fleet from 2020 that ends up transported in time back to, you guessed it, the Battle of Midway. Disgusted at not being trusted by the 1940's Americans, and reluctant to possibly kill their own grandparents, most of the crew elects to declare neutrality and become civilians in California, and the ship ends up fighting the Imperial Japanese Navy with a mostly-American crew.
It's also the first ship the Midway fleet encounters while the crew are still recovering from the time-travel, initially making for quite an unfortunate misunderstanding between the two fleets.
They appear at the Gate as protagonists, fighting a fantasy world horde complete with dragons coming from a portal to Ginza. What the horde didn't knew is that the JSDF have the firepower to kill off their horde, and it shows.
The author is actually a former JGSDF member. Extra points for authenticity of the JSDF.
In the Ultra Series, especially in the Showa ones, the JSDF usually aid the Science Patrol and Ultramen, only to prove just as useless as in the franchise's sister, the Godzilla series. Exceptions with Ultraman Tiga, Ultraman Nexus, and Ultraman Mebius, which are notable for having extremely competent defense forces.
The members of Dengeki Sentai Changeman are part of a global JSDF-like organization, the EDF (Earth Defense Force) created in preparation for an alien invasion.
In one ending of Drakengard, you end up being shot down by a JSDF fighter jet.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory has Japan forming a new branch of the JSDF: the Information Self-Defense Forces. Their role is signal intelligence and electronic warfare, having the potential to remotely shutdown attacking forces, even to the point of disrupting their own national power grids. As this could potentially be used offensively to strike well outside of Japan's borders (while not actually leaving it) this falls into a grey area of the post-war constitutional restrictions. Predictably, this has the effect of raising international tensions in east Asia, particularly with China and both North and South Korea. It is this international scenario which kicks off the plot in typical Tom Clancy style. Oh, and they're the Bad Guys.
Front Mission 3, set in 2112, features the JSDF rather prominently. They're quickly overshadowed by the Big Bads, but when you face off against them, they're surprisingly competent.
It's just the "JDF" by then. And they managed to steal a Weapon of Mass Destruction from a top-secret lab that was being guarded by a mecha expy of Delta Force (though to be fair, Barghest was distracted by over two hundred terrorist wanzers attacking them)
The Operation Flashpoint mod Battle over Hokkaido adds the JSDF in both Cold War and modern flavors against the Soviet Union.
In Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, the SDF locks down the entire Tokyo area to prevent demons from leaking out into the rest of the word, and stands ready to issue an electronic command to all electric devices in the city to microwave everyone in the area to do so.
In Shin Megami Tensei IV, the Counter-Demon Force is a long-destroyed example of this. They commanded the National Defense Divinities, a group of powerful, patriotic gods, but their power was barely enough to save Tokyo from nuclear holocaust. Ultimately the organization broke, and most of the Divinities were reforged into minions for Tayama's Ashura-Kai. The JGSDF's Camp Ichigaya base is a recurring locale across the three Alternate Dimensions visited in the game, and several JSDF bases (Camp Meguro, Jujo Base) are visited and raided in search for weaponry and supplies. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police building in Kasumigaseki is also visited as the abandoned base of the Counter-Demon Force.