YOTSUKAIDO CITY, Japan — Dressed in camouflage fatigues and sweating in the summer heat, Kento Atari and his comrades sneak through the woods trying to outfox their enemies in a mock military exercise.
“I’ve been hit,” yells one, emerging with hands held high.
The young Japanese, armed not with real weapons but air guns that shoot plastic pellets, are devotees of so-called “survival games,” which are increasingly popular in a land whose soldiers have not gone into battle since defeat in World War II.
Atari and others engaged in faux combat at Camp Devgru, a “war field” east of Tokyo, say their hobby does not equate with fondness for real conflict, reflecting an enduring public allergy to war that is a hurdle for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he pushes for a more muscular defense policy.
“You can get a thrill that you can’t in everyday life … it’s fun and it’s like a sport,” said Atari, a tall 24-year-old, during a lunch break at Camp Devgru one recent Saturday. “But it’s separate from war. I am against war.”
Atari and his mates say they play survival games to blow off steam, get some fresh air and exercise and indulge their fascination with military gear, albeit fake. Most are men, but couples also come on dates, women tag along with friends, and Camp Devgru sponsors a “Father’s Day” event for dads and kids.
“This is just a hobby,” said another 24-year-old, Takuya Oki. “I myself oppose war.”
Polls suggest most Japanese share such sentiments, despite worries over threats such as from an assertive and rising China.
A survey of 64 countries by WIN/Gallop International showed Japan ranked lowest in the percentage of people willing to fight for their country—11 percent, versus 71 percent in China, 44 percent in the United States and 27 percent in Britain.
Those numbers disguise more complex attitudes, however, that can be seen in the comments of the “survival games” enthusiasts—less a simplistic pacifism that rejects all use of force than a desire not to be dragged into others’ fights.
Japanese have long lived with the paradox of a post-war, US-drafted constitution whose pacifist Article 9 bans any armed forces, existing alongside a military that has grown bigger than that of Britain.
Successive governments have said the constitution allows “Self-Defense Forces” devoted exclusively to defending Japan, even as they loosened constraints on military activities.
“The Japanese are more anti-militarist than pacifist,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank.
“They’re prepared to accept the necessity of self-defense,” he said, but object to “the use of force as an instrument of power projection.”
Now Abe wants to expand the scope for military operations abroad, reinterpreting the constitution to allow defense of friendly countries under attack, or “collective self-defense.” Bills to implement the change are being debated in parliament.
The debate has split and confused the public. Forty-eight percent of respondents to a Yomiuri newspaper poll opposed the change while 40 percent backed it. Eighty percent complained that the government’s explanation was insufficient.
Abe’s ruling bloc can force the security bills—which opposition critics say are unconstitutional—through parliament given its majority, but any perception it had done so without enough debate would risk denting his now robust support ratings.
Prodded to contemplate their response if Japan were invaded, some “survival game” fans at Camp Devgru said they’d flee, while others pinned their hopes on the professional military.
Atari said he would fight.
“We can’t always keep relying on the United States to protect us,” he said, adding he might back dispatching troops to defend a friendly country—if the reason were made clear.
“When would [Japan] get involved? If we were to exercise collective self-defense after making that clear, I’d agree,” he said. “But I don’t want to be caught up in an unnecessary war.”