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...

Want the full story?

Subscribe Now

Subscribe
Subscribe

Get TIME the way you want it

  • One Week Digital Pass — $4.99
  • Monthly Pay-As-You-Go DIGITAL ACCESS$2.99
  • One Year ALL ACCESSJust $30!   Best Deal!
    Print Magazine + Digital Edition + Subscriber-only Content on TIME.com

Learn more about the benefits of being a TIME subscriber

If you are already a subscriber sign up — registration is free!