By Tim Kelly
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese battle tanks, helicopters and elite troops stormed the foothills of Mount Fuji Tuesday in a first-of-its-kind display of the tactics and equipment the nation's military could use to defend or retake islands in and around the East China Sea.
The maneuvers involving some 60 Japanese military aircraft, including Apache attack helicopters, marked the first time Japan's Self-Defence Forces (SDF) have simulated a remote island battle as part of an annual live-fire exercise that has become part training drill and part patriotic spectacle.
Some 14,000 spectators, who had applied in advance for the limited viewing space, watched as Apache helicopters opened fire on imaginary enemy positions. Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters then swooped in to land elite Japanese troops, who dropped to the group of spectators via ropes.
The exercises also included 80 battle tanks and armored vehicles and some 2,300 SDF troops.
A large video screen mounted to a truck showed a map of the islands near Okinawa that are the subject of a territorial dispute with China, and provided running commentary on the maneuvers.
Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has taken steps to relax limits imposed on its military by a pacifist constitution that dates back to defeat in World War Two.
In a strategic shift, Japan is building a new amphibious military unit and doubling the number of fighter jets deployed on Okinawa, galvanized by China's growing military power and claims on tiny uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
In July, Abe also ended a ban that kept Japan's military from fighting abroad, a historic step that both riled China and worried many Japanese voters.
But the crowd who gathered in the shadow of Japan's tallest and most famous mountain on Tuesday voiced support for a strong military.
As a military band played, nearby stands sold souvenirs including model military planes, camouflage t-shirts and military insignia towels.
The ground shook near spectators from the simulated battle playing out just a few hundred meters away.
"With all the fuss going on with China, Japan should have the equipment it needs," said Yoshinari Endo, who had traveled with his three-year old son from Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo for the event.
Applicants for the live fire display rose to 28 per available spot this year compared with 20 last year, according to a Defense Ministry spokesman.
"These people are the elite troops who will protect Japan, and I'm very glad they're on my side, not the opposite," said Yoko Miyake, 59.
SDF forces have stepped up amphibious training over the past year. In June 2013, Japanese troops trained with U.S. Marines in a drill in Southern California that simulated what would happen if the two sides had to retake an airfield on an island.
Experts have said it will take years to retool Japan's military for island-hopping conflict. The country's troops underwent decades of drilling in Cold War-era preparation aimed at the potential for massed tank battles against Russian forces that strategists worried could play out on the northern island of Hokkaido.
To have the ability to defend and seize remote islands, Japan needs new transport aircraft, satellites, surveillance drones and other equipment such as amphibious assault vehicles, experts have said.
Japanese and Chinese naval and coastguard ships have circled each other around the disputed islets since Japan's government purchased the formerly privately owned territory in 2012.
The U.S. government has said it recognizes Japan's administration of the islands, and that they are covered by the security treaty that obligates America to come to Japan's defense.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Ryan Woo)