By Minami Funakoshi
TOKYO (Reuters) - Just as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe beefs up Japan's military, the armed forces have turned to a 20-year pop idol for a softer touch in recruiting soldiers in a country that revels in all things cute.
"Working for the Self-defense Forces presents boundless dreams - like the earth, ocean and the sea," says Haruka Shimazaki of the all-girl group AKB48 in a new 30-second commercial distributed by the Defense Ministry.
"There's work that you can only do here," she says with a smile. A pink heart-shaped cherry petal spins as she points to the English phrase "You AND PEACE."
The nationally broadcast ad was released last week on the same day that Abe made his latest move toward a more muscular military, easing restrictions on Japanese troops fighting overseas. In April he eased decades-old restrictions on military exports after ending a decade of defense-spending cuts, worrying giant neighbor China.
It was just a coincidence that the ad, part of a broader recruitment drive, came out just when Abe's Cabinet was reinterpreting the pacifist, post-World War Two constitution to allow Japan's 224,526-strong military to defend friendly nations under attack, said a Defense Ministry spokesman.
"We want to give a friendly image and make it easier for youth to apply to the Self-defense Forces," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named, citing ministry policy. "We chose a member of AKB48 because the group is popular and well-known among high school students, the main target of our recruitment."
Shimazaki is one of the more bankable stars of the pop group. Fans recently voted her No. 7 among the 296 members of AKB48 and its sister groups.
The idol was selected, in part, because she had an earnest image, said an official at Asahi Advertising Inc, the ad agency that pitched Shimazaki to the Defense Ministry. Shimazaki previously did a spot for the Japanese Red Cross Society.
The ad follows a tradition of the armed forces using female idols as soft-sell recruitment draws. In a country known for adoring all things cute, the Defense Ministry has also long helped film directors, animators and TV producers produce military-themed content, including a cartoon about schoolgirls fighting tank battles.
Still, Shimazaki may have a tough sell.
Applications for military service run about 10 times the spaces available in recent years, but Abe's recent military moves are not popular. An opinion poll by Kyodo News after last week's historic shift showed 54.4 percent oppose allowing "collective self-defense," compared to 34.6 percent who support the change.
A photo of a bikini-clad critic with the caption "Let's all oppose collective self-defense" has circulated on Twitter and Facebook in response to the Defense Ministry's charm offensive.
(Editing by William Mallard and Nick Macfie)