Forget AIPAC, the Israeli Army's Biggest Fan Can Be Found in Japan

‘Sigcchi’ has collected tags, insignias, berets, pins and gear for the IDF units he portrays, but it’s a controversial counterterrorism brigade he loves most

Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan
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IN THE ARMY NOW: Sigcchi, left, with fellow airsoft enthusiasts.
IN THE ARMY NOW: Sigcchi, left, with fellow airsoft enthusiasts.Credit: Courtesy of Sigcchi
Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan

A soldier takes a wide stance atop a rocky hill. He grips the handle of his M4 assault rifle, index finger splayed across the side of the gun, magazine inserted. His kneepads and red combat boots — standard issue for particular Israeli army units — show signs of wear. In another picture, he wears the camo-print beret and shoulder tag of the Kfir Brigade, a single rank on his shoulder marking him as a second lieutenant.

This isn’t a photograph from the website of the Israel Defense Forces or even from a recruit’s feed. It was uploaded onto Instagram by a 22-year-old university student in Osaka, Japan, who uses the handle “Sigcchi” (the nom de guerre is an in-joke with his friends).

This is his cosplay character when he plays airsoft, a military-style game — similar to paintball  — that first originated in Japan in the 1970s but really took off in the early 2000s.

For Sigcchi, who prefers not to disclose his real name, the IDF has become his niche. “The reason why I became interested in the IDF is [Israel Air Force] fighter aircraft — I like not only soldiers’ uniforms but also military aircraft,” he tells Haaretz. “As I explored the IAF, I became interested in IDF uniforms.”

“Interested” is an understatement. Sigcchi has collected tags, insignias, berets, pins and gear for the units he portrays. His photos in IDF dress uniform show constellations of pins on the breast pocket, correctly identifying him as a Kfir Brigade officer, and occasionally a medic — pins that would be difficult even for an Israeli soldier to distinguish.

Actual Israeli Kfir Brigade drill
Sigcchi, right, standing next to two teammates during a game of airsoft.

He uses pictures for reference, and sometimes gets a little extra help. “Sometime I get advice about IDF uniforms from real IDF soldiers,” he says. “Their kind advice always help me out.”

Sigcchi talks to them over Facebook or Instagram. Having seen the quality of his cosplay (the Japanese hobby in which people dress as their favorite characters, commonly from television, movies and anime), the Israelis usually initiate contact rather than the other way around.

Aesthetics and convenience

Airsoft is played in special parks and can draw around 100 players per game. The participants use airsoft (or BB) guns to fire soft pellets at targets and each other, with serious players frequently spending up to $1,000 on their guns and up to $2,000 on gear.

A group of airsoft players, including Sigcchi (crouching) getting their orders during a game.Credit: Courtesy of Sigcchi

“Airsoft players dress as various countries’ soldiers when playing,” Sigcchi explains. “That is not unusual in Japan.” He notes that out of all the foreign armies, most Japanese airsoft players gravitate toward U.S. Army and Marines uniforms, likely the result of American movies and television, not to mention U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan.

Sigcchi, though, took a shine to the controversial Kfir Brigade, which is the IDF’s largest infantry unit. The brigade was officially formed in 2005, mainly from existing battalions that specialized in urban warfare and counterterrorism during the first and second intifadas. The unit is now permanently stationed in the West Bank, carrying out day- and nighttime raids, arrests and operations.

The Kfir Brigade received attention for integrating the IDF’s first ultra-Orthodox battalion,  Netzah Yehuda, which is based near Jenin. In 2016, a Kfir Brigade soldier, Elor Azaria, shot and killed an already wounded Palestinian who had attempted to stab a soldier. The ensuing court drama split Israeli society into two camps: Azaria’s fervent supporters and those urging restraint.

Sigcchi and comrades during a game of airsoft.Credit: Courtesy of Sigcchi

Sigcchi chose the brigade less out of ideology and more out of aesthetics and convenience. “I took a shine to Kfir's camouflage beret at first sight!” he says. “That beret is so cool. And Kfir Brigade soldiers use M4 carbines” — a shorter, lighter version of the standard M16 assault rifle. “I can easily get M4 airsoft guns in Japan,” he says, noting that the X95 (Tavor) rifles favored by other IDF infantry units don’t exist in airsoft form.

He’s fully aware of the controversy surrounding Israel and the IDF in the world, but it doesn’t faze him. “Of course I’m following IDF news,” he says. “But most Japanese are not interested in the news in the Middle East. Therefore, I’ve never been told bad things in Japan.”

Sigcchi taking a break from his war games,Credit: Courtesy of Sigcchi

Palestinians on Instagram have “spoken ill” toward him, he says, but it doesn’t affect his cosplay.

In fact, a December 2017 Instagram post of his was ripped straight from the headlines. “A Palestinian protester [is] arrested by Israeli security forces,” the caption states, showing two IDF “soldiers” with their faces blurred — friends of his — dragging away a man dressed as Santa Claus. “Japanese IDF-style cosplayers think [Santa protesters] with IDF soldiers are a common feature in the wintertime in Israel,” Sigcchi explains.

Pilgrimage to Israel

Sigcchi recently made a pilgrimage to the home of his cosplay role models. “I went [to] Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Latrun [Armored Corps] Museum and more,” he says. “And I enjoyed the Purim festival. It was a great experience, I really want to go again,” he says of his March visit. 

Israeli soldiers, meanwhile, seem to be at once confused and amused by Sigcchi’s cosplay — but seem grateful for his support. In online groups and forums where Sigcchi’s pictures circulate, they comment that his gear is not only legitimate but often better quality than most army-issue equipment. 

Sigcchi notes that he mainly buys his equipment from online auctions and stores. But he took advantage of his recent vacation in Israel to visit Rikushet — an outdoor retail chain well-known to soldiers who have lost a beret or unit tag and don’t want to face a write-up from the military police.

Comments on his Instagram posts, mainly from IDF soldiers and veterans, salute the authenticity of his cosplay. An equal number ask, exasperatedly, “Why Kfir?” 

"Sigcchi" dresses to impress (Israeli soldiers).Credit: Courtesy of Sigcchi

And for so many who had no choice but to put on that same uniform, vest, helmet and rifle, it puzzles them that someone on the other side of the world would invest so much to voluntarily copy that look. 

One commenter, though, offers a note of caution. “He should watch out: He might be called up for Gaza at this rate.”

When asked for a response to Sigcchi’s cosplay, an IDF spokesperson said, “I’m not doing this.”