Japan votes for Mr and Ms in sailor popularity poll

TOKYO - Japan's military is inviting the public to vote for their favourite officers in an online contest complete with clips of a muscular serviceman stripped to the waist and doing pull-ups.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) picked three men and three women from its 46,000-strong roster to go head-to-head in a popularity poll for the title "Mr. & Ms. JMSDF".

The entrants, who are all in their 20s or 30s, each have a one-and-a-half minute video showing them at work in various naval situations.

An official at the JMSDF said the contest was a way to raise the profile of the force.

"We want people to know what kind of missions we carry out and to publicise not just our equipment but the people who operate it," he said, noting interest appeared to be higher when the public had specific individuals they could identify with.

More than 123,000 votes have been cast since the competition opened in September, with the dashing Tetsuya Ichihashi, Petty Officer 3rd Class, head and shoulders above the other men.

Footage posted on YouTube shows the well-groomed Ichihashi in training for a deep sea dive, determined but unafraid to admit his feelings.

"I'm very tense, and honestly speaking I'm all worries," he says.

The film then cuts to show the well-honed and shirtless Ichihashi working up a sweat as he pumps iron in the training room, with the words "pressure" and "fear" crossing the screen.

Other videos show officers playing their roles in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden or on a low-altitude patrol flight over a densely populated area after an earthquake.

The favoured female candidate thus far, with three weeks left to go, is Leading Seaman Junko Matsudai, who flaunts her skills with signal flags and the bugle as she works the communications shift on her vessel.

Each seemingly professionally-produced video ends on a teaser with its hero or heroine readying to go out on a mission. Only the winners will star in sequels showing them tackling their task.

Members of the public are being asked to vote in the contest, but must answer a quick quiz on their smartphone about the JMSDF and the videos they have just seen before their ballot will count.

Only those who get at least six out of the ten questions correct are eligible to help select the winner, but can vote as many times as they like, provided they make the grade on the test each time.

Japan's well-funded and well-trained military has for a long time had a low profile in pacifist Japan, where many are leery of a warmongering past when the nation was dominated by its armed forces.

But their efficient and professional response in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, when they played a key role in getting life-saving supplies to cut off places, won them acclaim.

The election of the hawkish Shinzo Abe as prime minister has also boosted their stock, with talk of a shift in policy that he says would allow the services to play a larger role in regional and global security, as well as disaster relief.

However, Japan's neighbours, particularly China and South Korea, accuse Tokyo of being insensitive to the suffering it inflicted in the 20th Century, and say its military should remain constricted.