By Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo
TOKYO (Reuters) - Being a soldier in Japan after World War Two was seen as a job for failed police recruits and unemployed youth from depressed rural towns. But as tension with China chips away at Japan's post-war pacifism, the military is regaining its prestige - helped by a blitz of television dramas, movies and cartoons.
Patriotic zeal is now a more compelling reason to enlist. A decade ago, around one in 10 candidates said they wanted to be a soldier for love of country. These days it's closer to one in three, according to recruitment data obtained by Reuters.
Film directors, animators and TV producers have delivered a bumper crop of military-themed content, much of it with help from the Ministry of Defense.
Hit shows include "Girls und Panzer", a cartoon about schoolgirls fighting tank battles, and "Eternal Zero", a movie about a kamikaze pilot that its director made in part to counter an image of Japanese soldiers as fanatics.
The military's attempt to emerge from decades in the shadows is in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's more nationalistic tone and a less apologetic diplomacy.
Making the military cool is important for Abe's drive to increase defense spending after years of cuts. But even a soft-power approach to boosting defense risks inflaming tensions with neighbors who still have strong memories of Japan's aggression.
"It's our job to explain to the Japanese people why we have to raise the Self-Defense Force budget," said Hirokazu Mihara, the head of public relations at the Defense Ministry. "We need to have as close a relationship with them as possible."
That relationship is getting tighter.
Reflecting the praise the Self-Defense Force (SDF) won for its rescue efforts after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, a government survey in 2012 showed that 91.7 percent of respondents expressed a favorable opinion of the military, the highest level since the survey began in 1969.
Escalating tension with China over maritime borders and the threat from North Korean missiles have ensured the military's place in the media spotlight.
"When I was at school, feelings about the war were strong and anti-military feeling was high," said Yutaka Takaku, editor of Mamoru, the Defense Ministry's official magazine. "That allergy is going. People realize a military is necessary."
The growing popularity of soldiers as potential husbands prompted Takaku to begin a dating feature that introduces three single men from the navy, airforce or army every month.
Each issue also has a popular female model on its cover to draw in men. In December it was Mai Fuchigami, the voice of one of the lead characters in "Girls und Panzer".
The TV series, which ran last year, featured the girls commanding old and modern tanks accurately drawn to scale. To get those details right, staff from Bandai Visual, an animation unit of computer game maker Namco Bandai, were granted access to the army's tank school and other SDF bases.
The girls are never hurt in the cartoon battles, protected by a special "carbon lining" in their tanks.
"We have presented it like a sports tournament. A real battle would mean people dying," said producer Kiyoshi Sugiyama.
Bandai, which will release a "Girls und Panzer" movie this year, has also collaborated with Wargaming.net, put out a mobile social game in Japan and plans to sell a game for Sony Corp's PSP Vita handheld console.
The cartoon, Sugiyama said, was not made to promote the military but as a venture to make money for Bandai. Nonetheless, the girls and their tanks have reinforced the military's public relations, with copycat characters used in recruitment posters.
At the army's annual live-fire exercises last August, a record 110,000 people applied for less than 6,000 public seats, many of them fans of the cartoon.
"THE POWER OF POPULAR CULTURE"
Cute images have long been used by Japan's military but it has become even more "warm and fuzzy" to appeal to young people, said Sabinne Fruhstuck, professor of Modern Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"The military has, along with other governmental agencies and corporations, finally discovered the power of popular culture. Thus those tank girls," said Fruhstuck, who wrote "Uneasy Warriors", a 2007 book about the Japanese army.
But the popularity of the armed forces may not translate into greater public backing for military action, she said.
The military's appetite for publicity prompted it to lend a missile destroyer to Takashi Yamazaki, the director of "Eternal Zero", for a day. The footage he took helped generate computer images of a wartime aircraft carrier.
"If you approach the SDF with a proposal that is going to make them look bad then you won't get anywhere," he said. "But if it benefits both sides then they are ready to cooperate."
Yamazaki's movie led box office returns at the end of last year. The tale of a kamikaze pilot moved prime minister Abe to tears, according to media reports.
The resurgent role of the military and the prospect of changes to Japan's pacificist constitution have alarmed its Chinese and Korean neighbors.
Naoki Hyakuta, author of a 2006 book on which "Eternal Zero" was based and an Abe-appointed member of state broadcaster NHK's board, further fuelled those concerns in February.
In a speech backing Toshio Tamogami, a right-wing candidate in elections for Tokyo's governor, Hyakuta denied the Nanjing Massacre ever happened. China says 300,000 people were killed.
Other backers of Tamogami, who won 12 percent of the vote in Tokyo, are also looking to transform wartime history.
Satoru Mizushima, the head of right-wing Internet TV service Channel Sakura, welcomes the higher profile of the military as "a return to normality". Japan's decision to go to war, he argues, inspired Asian nations to throw off Western imperialism.
"The question is who is going to contain the fascist regime in China and it looks like it is down to Japan," said Mizushima.
Yamazaki, the "Eternal Zero" director, also wants to revise history lessons, albeit in a milder way.
"The education we received after the war was one sided," he said. "That doesn't mean we have to flip to the other side but we need to think how we can achieve a middle road."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)