The Japanese navy, currently facing some serious questions over the legality of its decision to sell engine parts to the British Royal Navy (a clear violation of Tokyo’s stated policy to ban arms exports), has taken a not-so-serious step to soften its image and perhaps recruit more youths by conducting a “beauty contest” of sorts.

The online contest, under which the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, as it is officially named, is asking the public to choose who they think are the most attractive male and female members of the naval service, may also provide some much-needed levity for a public weary from an extended economic malaise, the continuing after-effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and rising geopolitical tensions with China and North Korea.

The “Mr. & Ms. JMSDF” contest is clearly designed for tech-savvy Japanese youths who will pick from six “beauty contestants” selected by the navy. Time magazine reported that more than 100,000 votes have already been cast online as a testament to its popularity in a country that applauded the efforts of the military in response to Fukushima.

The Daily Telegraph noted that one of the top vote-getters so far is Tetsuya Ichihashi, Petty Officer 3rd Class. "I'm very tense, and honestly speaking I'm all worries," he stated about his chances of winning. 

It remains to be seen if the contest will translate into a recruiting bonanza. “Young people in Japan have a lot of options, and they don’t know much about the JMSDF,” Lt. Cmdr. Takashi Nobukuni, a spokesman, told Time. “We’re hoping they will look at this and think, ‘That’s something I’d like to do.’” The winner will be announced on Oct. 31, the Telegraph reported.

Time indicated that as China raises the temperature in the region with its territorial demands, the Japanese public has become more enamored with its various armed services, amidst increasing demands from some right-wing nationalists that the military be permitted to upgrade its role from a purely self-defense posture. Still, most Japanese people remain pacifist, resulting in some difficulty for the navy and other military branches in achieving their recruitment goals.

“There is more public awareness and acceptance of the self-defense forces than in the past due to the tensions with North Korea and China and the tsunami relief effort,” Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, told Time. “But it’s still fairly low, and [the Japanese people] don’t want constitutional change or a vastly greater force.”

Despite the nation’s pacifist image and self-defense stance (a direct result of Japan’s devastating loss in World War II), the JMSDF – a 46,000-strong force -- is actually quite an impressive entity. It boasts more than 100 surface warships and given close links to the U.S. Navy, has a formidable presence in Asia-Pacific waters. Tokyo’s defense budget would rank it in the global top 10 – but conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would like to increase military spending further, due to fears that China’s budget for defense has been mushrooming. Abe, who is gravely concerned by Chinese designs on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, also wants to amend the constitution to remove an article that restrains Japan from declaring war.