TOKYO — It’s not every day that the illustration on a box cover for a model warship can annoy the Chinese, alarm the Japanese and amuse the U.S. Marine Corps – not to mention sinking the model ship itself.
But that’s what you get when you mess around with territorial disputes in the East China Sea these days.
This particular saga began about month ago when the Aoshima company introduced an updated version of its popular 1:700 scale model of the JS Hyuga, Japan’s largest and arguably most well-known warship. Hobbyists in Japan spend $500 million a year on scale models and related gear, so it’s a big business.
Being alert to headlines, Aoshima upgraded the Hyuga, a helicopter carrier, with V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and amphibious assault vehicles, and labeled the model “Operation Remote Island Defense.”
The previous cover showed the Hyuga sailing benignly in open seas. But the new illustration showed the sleek warship with Ospreys buzzing overhead and decks awash with landing vehicles and attack helicopters. In the background was a small island, and nearby was another warship, on fire and sinking below the waves. That warship bore an uncanny resemblance to the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, which the PLA Navy launched with much fanfare last year, and is viewed with much suspicion in Japan.
No surprise, then, that the new model quickly sold out.
Japan and China are engaged in an increasingly tense standoff over a group of small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan, and Diaoyu in China.
Chinese patrol ships have sailed regularly inside the islands’ territorial waters for months, and Chinese frigates have twice locked fire-control radar on Japanese warships and aircraft nearby. Japanese news media have been filled with scenarios – mostly fanciful – wherein Chinese forces occupy Japanese territory and must be pried off by force.
Aoshima benefited from good timing. Just as the new model hit the shelves, U.S. Marines made news by landing a real Osprey on the deck of the actual Hyuga. The test flight took place during a massive amphibious warfare exercise with U.S. forces off the California coast, and drew intense media coverage in Japan.
Japan’s Self Defense Force does not own any Ospreys, but dearly wants to buy some. The V-22 can take off and land like a helicopter, and fly with the speed, range and payload of a fixed-wing aircraft. It is widely seen as ideal for defending remote islands in Japan’s sprawling southwest island chain.
Alas, the timing might have been too good.
Just a few days after the flight, a popular television show produced a lengthy segment on the Osprey that included a remarkably long look at Aoshima’s re-branded model. Panelists on the “7 Days” news and variety show – including popular actor, writer, comedian and film auteur Takeshi Kitano – looked on as presenters visited a model shop in the frenetic Akihabara district and talked at length with Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister and current Secretary General of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Ishiba said he liked the model and certainly thought the idea of buying V-22s for Japan’s self defense forces was worth exploring. But he voiced some reservations about the cover illustration.
“The scenario being presented is exactly what we are trying to avoid,” Ishiba said.
The Chinese, ever suspicious of Japan, weren’t so sure about that. Chinese social media cited the model and illustration as further evidence of growing Japanese militarism and hostility towards China.
Apparently, all that was enough for Aoshima. The company stopped shipments of the new model and even pulled the “7 Days” TV segment from a company blog site.
And the Marines?
Well, it seems they kind of liked the illustration. As it happens, the Marines began flying Ospreys from Okinawa’s Futenma Air Base last year. The move provoked considerable protests from residents who were spooked by the aircraft’s early safety problems (though to be honest, the Marines couldn’t hold a bake sale on Okinawa without drawing protests from some quarters). But the Marines have been quick to point out that the Ospreys can put several hundred combat-ready troops anywhere in Japan’s southwestern chain in a matter of hours.
The Marines haven’t commented officially on the great box-cover controversy, but the Marines’ Operations and Intelligence Directorate on Okinawa circulated an analysis – apparently tongue in cheek. It observes that the Ospreys and amphibious landing craft in the illustration appear to be Marine Corps equipment, and notes with apparent approval the “subtle messaging” involved therein.
All of which may be moot. The JMSDF is scheduled to christen a newer, bigger helicopter carrier next month. The new ship, as yet unnamed, will be the largest warship built by Japan since the Second World War.
No word yet on what the illustration for the scale model will look like.