Postwar Semantics in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

Postwar Semantics in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces

What’s in a name? Pride, honor, and history.

Postwar Semantics in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces
Credit: REUTERS/Yuya Shino

The Japan-U.S. alliance is one of the strongest in the world. Not only does it include a vast array of economic and diplomatic agreements, but the average observer can easily point out the degree to which their militaries cooperate. Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) personnel can be found side-by-side with American forces during most of Asia’s major military exercises, and ongoing capability building and technology exchange has made the U.S.-Japan military partnership the most robust and advanced in Asia. Both nations share operating bases. both patrol the same waters, and both practice in the same airspace. In short, Japan-U.S. military cooperation is extensive and well established.

A foreign officer in Japan, however, soon encounters a phenomenon peculiar to the JSDF: Military terms were revised in the post-World War II lexicons. If seeking his infantry or artillery unit counterparts, he will have trouble finding anyone who knows the words “infantry” or “artillery.” While searching for captains, majors, and colonels to speak with, the same officer would only find curiously numbered personnel (1-rank, 2-rank, 3-rank, and so on). A naval officer looking for information on “destroyers” or “cruisers” will find himself at a loss as to which terms to use in his search.

So what’s the cause of these verbal contortions? In short, the post-World War II Japanese military has sought to separate itself from the wartime-legacy of the Japanese imperial forces, and all the negative press that comes with it: military coups, overthrow of the constitutional order, and rapacious conquest. To this end, the rearmament of Japan beginning in 1951 explored an unprecedented idea: If units, specialties, vessel classes, and even military ranks were given more innocuous names, it would decrease the possibility of a return to militarism and downplay the extent to which the JSDF is an actual military force.

New Force, New Names

Chief among the institutions to be torn down by the American occupiers immediately after the war was the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy; troops repatriating home were demobilized quickly and former Imperial officers found themselves on the street with little use for their wartime experience, and an occupying force with even less will to re-employ them. Despite the thoroughness of the imperial demobilization, however, Cold War imperatives spurred special negotiator John Foster Dulles to demand in 1951 that Japan raise an armed force for national defense (and deterring the Soviets). Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru agreed to establish land, sea, and air forces with 50,000 personnel, eventually rising to 75,000. With the old army and navy thoroughly dismantled, Japan would have to start almost from scratch – and the U.S. found itself responsible for training and equipping this new armed force, just as quickly as it found itself responsible for tearing the old one down.

To this end, an American Army officer named Colonel Frank Kowalski took charge of the rearmament, which included two major objectives relevant to this article: to ensure that no nefarious imperial influences find its way into the officer corps in order to prevent a resurgence in militarism, and to form a defense force as mentally separate as possible from the wartime military establishment. This led the U.S. trainers to develop brand new names for old military concepts; even the everyday terms used by Japan during World War II were frightening enough to conjure up images of the imperial banner marching across Asia. The U.S. architects of Japan’s National Defense Force were determined to avoid such images from causing potential Asian allies to flee their sphere of influence, or accidentally rekindle war fervor in Japan proper. The primary objective of the name changes, therefore, was to create as much distance (and difference) as possible between the prewar and postwar Japanese military image. This has critical implications when considering military morale, pride, and how the civilian population views the JSDF, even today.

The change in words from prewar to postwar form is difficult to understand unless one has daily encounters with the JSDF; the subtle differences are unavailable in English since both prewar and postwar Japanese military terms are translated as the same word. For example, a novice translator may translate the word “infantry” as 「歩兵」(hohei), which literally means “walking soldier,” and was certainly used to describe infantry during World War II and before. In practice, however, this is a dead word in postwar Japanese; the correct word today is 「普通科」(hutsuuka), which literally means “normal soldier” but is now also used to denote “infantry.” Term after term, postwar Japanese words for older military concepts create a sense of separation with the past in attempts to soften the formerly rigid specter of the military martinet.

Here is a list of some more prominent terms that have been changed. The list is not all-inclusive, but the objective is clear: Modern Japanese terms attempt to soften or redirect a “military” image as much as possible. (An expanded list can be found here.)

English Word

Prewar Term

Postwar Term

Effect of Change




将校 (shoukou) 士官 (shikan) or 幹部 (kanbu) The term shoukou conjures images of a military coup in the 1930s. “Shikan” and “kanbu” imply mere government officials.



歩兵 (hohei) 普通科 (hutsuuka) Subtly softens the image of a soldier. Literal translation: “standard type.”



火砲 (kahou) or大砲 (taihou) 特科 (tokka), often represented as 特科隊 (tokkatai) Completely removes all references to artillery in favor of the term “support,” which indirectly refers to artillery as a support role for the infantry.

Destroyer (vessel)


駆逐艦 (kuchikukan) 護衛艦 (goeikan) Downplays the “destroy” aspect, and emphasizes the “escort” role of modern ships. The literal change is from “destroyer” to “defensive escort vessel.”



軍曹 (gunsou) 3曹 Eliminates the use of the “military” (軍) character. Literal translation: from “military person” to “No. 3 person”

2nd Lieutenant/Ensign


少尉 3尉 Numerical values imply a more corporate role vice a military one. Literal translation: from “Junior company grade” to “3rd class company grade”


大尉 1尉 “ “
Major/Lt Commander


少佐 3佐 “ “
Colonel/Captain 大佐 1佐 “ “

Largely spared from the list is the Air Self-Defense Force. During World War II, the Japanese air force, like America’s, was split between the Army and Navy; a separate service did not exist. As such, the words for “fighter,” “bomber,” “transport,” and the like came directly from the U.S. rather than evolving separately from postwar wordsmiths, and Air Self-Defense Force words and U.S. Air Force words remain largely identical in translation.

Pride, Not Militarism

From the JSDF’s perspective, most personnel are ambivalent about these word differences, finding them silly or ingratiating. After all, a large part of being an effective fighting force is pride, and pride is difficult to come by serving in a framework whose daily operating terms remind one of past humiliations and sever contact with one’s history. Indeed, daily conversation between JSDF and foreign military personnel often slips into the prewar terms, especially when discussing rank and titles. A conversation that begins discussing the “航空自衛隊” or “Air Self-Defense Force” might end with each party referring to themselves as “空軍” or “Air Force,” an image the JSDF has tried to avoid in public statements and in conduct. Additionally, the traditional terms for the military services imply a full offensive capability. In fact, the JSDF are restricted to defensive operations only and the Japanese government has taken great pains to establish this image. Any term that takes away from this effort, therefore, is frowned upon, especially from a policy level.

Despite irrational fears sometimes found in East Asia, this return to the old terminology doesn’t betray a wicked desire to return to prewar militarism; rather, it occurs because the prewar terms are the terms still used by other nations and cross all international boundaries, including some like Sweden or Switzerland that haven’t fought a war in more than two centuries. This makes them easy to use in regular conversation. Indeed, among themselves JSDF personnel often use the simpler terms “Army,” “Navy,” and “Air Force” not only because they’re easier to use but also because they reflect a broader tradition of military history and culture. The JSDF has only been a “defense force” for 65 years; it was an “armed force” during its formative years in the 19th century, and its tradition reflects such a history. A similar analogue can be found when the United States changed its “Department of War” to the “Department of Defense;” historically difficult to part from, the name change carries subtle differences in goals and reflects a changing policy world, yet the traditions of the War Department live on in the Department of Defense and in each individual service, unchanged by the name.

Today’s Implications

The name changes have had several notable implications. Some U.S. officers, now wishing for a more active defense partner in the Pacific, look upon the name changes with a combination of curiosity and regret. In most estimations, it was an experiment designed both to satisfy GHQ’s idealistic goals of demilitarization, best represented by Article IX of the constitution, and to minimize any chances of Japan returning to militarism in the way Germany did during the interwar period. Nevertheless, the new names became custom, and custom has become tradition; a change back to more direct and “warlike” terms will most likely only accompany a return to full-fledged Armed Forces status.

Adding new terms and eliminating old ones has also served to increase the gulf between the JSDF and the civil population. Already unpopular in Japan, by changing the ranks and names of basic service functions, everyday citizens who shunned military matters lost even more of their basic military awareness. In contrast with the average U.S. citizen who at least has heard the word “sergeant” and may grasp the basic differences between the services, for a long time Japanese, from the lowliest pauper to the highest policymakers, actively scorned the JSDF. Facing neglect from their own countrymen and forced to use names that intentionally emasculate them, it is no wonder the JSDF revert to the old names on occasion; to do otherwise would not only be to ignore their own history but would also be self-deprecating and potentially harmful to unit morale.

No matter the opinion, the postwar military terminology changes reflect a substantial though rarely discussed facet of everyday JSDF life that affects JSDF operations and reputation in ways seldom understood. Essentially possessing two lexicons, each politically charged in a different way, the JSDF continue their precarious balancing act between historical pride, postwar loathing, and reputation concerns in their daily operations, an unenviable position that other militaries have the luxury to be without.

John Wright is a U.S. Air Force officer and pilot. He is currently assigned to Tokyo as a fellow for the Mansfield Foundation, which is dedicated to U.S.-Japan cooperation via intense US federal employee exchange and placement in the Japanese government.  The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and not those of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Government, or Government of Japan.