Return of the Samurai

Hajime Kimura for TIME

These days, Japanese pilot Kohta "Vader" Araki, who flies F-15s, is always on alert.

Riceman was on high alert. So was Vader (as in Darth), a Japanese fighter pilot whose sinister call sign belies his smiling countenance. At Naha Air Base, perched on the subtropical tail of the Japanese archipelago, F-15 pilots from the 204th tactical fighter squadron know what the sudden, hushed message broadcast over the loudspeakers one rainy afternoon in September means: another emergency fighter-jet mission for a nation that technically doesn't even possess a conventional military. Territorial tensions between Japan and China have intensified over a scattering of islands in the East China Sea, which Japan administers but to which...

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