Since World War II, Japan's military has never been involved in combat. Its forces have never fired a shot in war. But few are questioning their value now.
In its biggest mission since 1945, more than 100,000 troops _ roughly half the force _ have been mobilized to lead the recovery effort after a March 11 tsunami that devastated the coast of northeast Japan.
The presence of the Self-Defense Forces, as the military is known in Japan, is ubiquitous. Soldiers in dark green fatigues dig through mud and debris in search of bodies. Convoys deliver food and fuel to hundreds of thousands of survivors. They provide water, logistical support and leadership at shelters. Their helicopters dropped ocean water on the overheating Fukushima nuclear plant after the tsunami disabled its cooling systems.
This, the soldiers say, is what they signed up to do.
"I joined the Self-Defense Force because I wanted to help out at home in natural disasters, not because I wanted to go to war overseas," 1st Sgt. Shintaro Ichijo, a 25-year-old Fukushima native, said as he mopped up the floor of a gymnasium with dozens of teachers and students at Ishinomaki Technical Senior High School. "We are here for our people."
What the role of Japan's military should be, and even its very existence, has been controversial for much of the postwar era.
The current government, keeping a wary eye on China's military rise, wants to strengthen the Self-Defense Forces. The public is unsure, with some arguing that even having a fighting force violates a constitution that renounces the right to wage war.
After Japan's defeat in World War II, a U.S.-led occupation force rewrote Japan's constitution. One clause stated that Japan would never use war to settle international disputes and banned the nation from maintaining a military that could be used as an offensive force.
For years, that was interpreted to mean it couldn't have a military at all. When the Self-Defense Forces were created in 1954, it sparked huge protests across the country. The protests intensified as the military grew and Japan forged a formal alliance with the U.S., which bases about 50,000 troops in this country.
Over the decades, Japan's military has become one of the most advanced in the world. Under pressure from the U.S. to play a larger role in regional security, it is increasingly involved in peacekeeping operations abroad. It also sent refueling ships to the Indian Ocean to help with the Afghan war.
Such moves remain controversial, both within Japan and among its neighbors, who bore the brunt of its 20th century military aggression.
In the disaster zone, many still aren't sure what the military's broader role should be.
"To be honest, I never had much use for the idea of Japan having a strong military," Hiroshi Kimura, a 65-year-old retired car salesman, said as he watched troops clean up a school that was inundated by the tsunami and is covered in a layer of brown mud. "We Japanese have very complex feelings about war and the military because of our experience with World War II."
But he added: "They gave me food and water, and they helped clean up the rubble of our houses. If they are serving the people, we welcome that."
Restrictions on calling in the military, and political reluctance to do so, were a major hindrance to rescue efforts after a 1995 earthquake struck the western Japan city of Kobe, killing more than 6,000 people. Police and firefighters struggled alone for days, and the troops were largely relegated to clearing rubble and helping with supplies later in the crisis.
That experience led to changes that made disaster response a primary mission for the Self-Defense Forces. When another deadly quake struck in Niigata prefecture in 2004, the military was called in as a first-responder.
This time, Prime Minister Naoto Kan immediately mobilized 50,000 troops and then upped that to 107,000. He has also called up reservists, the first such order ever issued.
Col. Takayuki Teranishi, who participated briefly in Japan's humanitarian, noncombat mission to Iraq in the 1990s, acknowledged that the military must deal with the stigma of the country's militaristic past, which affects recruiting and has weakened efforts to boost defense spending.
Nevertheless, he said people who join the Self-Defense Forces have a strong sense of national pride. "We want to serve the country," he said. "Helping in emergencies is the best way for us to do that."