Government looks to double number of women serving in SDF units

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The Defense Ministry on Tuesday unveiled a batch of initiatives aimed at doubling the number of female personnel in the male-dominated Self-Defense Forces.

The announcement dovetails with what is dubbed the “womenomics” drive spearheaded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose administration has billed female empowerment in workplaces as a crucial part of its growth strategy meant to galvanize the nation’s long-stalled economy.

“The number of SDF servicewomen is far from enough. The biggest obstacle is the deeply ingrained male-oriented working culture,” Abe was quoted by the ministry as saying in a meeting of senior officials in September last year.

“It’s not easy to change a long-established institutional culture, but making more active use of female talent is a touchstone for the SDF’s ability to adapt to a new era,” he said, emphasizing that greater diversity in personnel is now essential to the field of security and defense amid the nation’s shrinking population.

The ministry said it plans to double female personnel, which stood at 13,989 as of the end of 2016, or 6.1 percent of the total. However, the ministry stopped short of setting a specific deadline for achieving the goal.

The 6.1 percent figure is significantly lower than the makeup of female staff in military organizations abroad as of 2014.

According to North Atlantic Treaty Organization figures quoted by the Defense Ministry, women comprised 15.2 percent of U.S. military personnel, 14.3 percent in Canada and 13.6 percent in France .

The ministry also aims to halve turnover rates for servicewomen, which logged 1.5 percent in fiscal 2015.

At the core of the measures disclosed by the ministry is its decision to lift a ban on placing females in combat roles traditionally considered too physically challenging for women, such as those in front-line infantry and armored units.

These male-only units currently account for about 30 percent of the 150,000-member GSDF, according to Takeshi Aoki, director of the Personnel Affairs Division of the Defense Ministry.

Similar bans had been in place previously on some units of the Marine and Air SDF, only to be scrapped in recent years as part of the ministry’s effort to utilize more women.

Tuesday’s announcement put an end to the last remaining regulatory barrier for women, paving the way for what the ministry claims to be greater gender equality in the SDF.

Aoki, however, added female personnel will continue to be denied access to certain positions, such as those involving exposure to radiation, as per laws protecting the well-being of women. Submarines will also remain off-limits to females because the cramped quarters preclude separate bathrooms from being built, Aoki said.

Other measures being taken to boost the number of females include setting up more child care centers within the ministry, streamlining workloads and reducing overwork, Aoki said.