The ongoing territorial squabble with China has brought Japan’s Coast Guard into the spotlight, causing a surge in job applications and even inspiring a local box-office hit film. But behind the scenes, the once-obscure civilian maritime force is being stressed and tested to its limits.
Due to the territorial tug of war over the Senkaku (Diaoyu in China) Islands, China has been sending patrol ships near the disputed waters. To fend them off, Japan has also sent maritime patrol ships. But in order not to escalate the situation, the government isn’t using the military Self Defense Forces. Instead, it has tasked the Coast Guard, composed of civilians and run by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism. Although somewhat on par with their Chinese counterparts, the Coast Guard is being stretched thin. Its crew, used to shifts of at most two weeks, are on duty without time off for months. They are also forced to skip crucial training, in a time when they are expected to be able to ward off and restrain offenders both on sea and on remote islands. Ships also receive only temporary repairs instead of much-needed overhauls.
Although the number of applicants have double this year, the Coast Guard lacks the resources to train them. A number of older vessels need to be retired as well. The situation has become a rallying and unifying point of many of the political parties and candidates running for election in a few days, with promises of allocating funds and beefing up the Coast Guard to empower it to respond to situations and emergencies that the pacifist nation hasn’t faced in decades.