When the future empress of Japan entered the country’s elite diplomatic corps in 1987, a year after a major equal employment law went into effect, she was one of only three female recruits. Known then as Masako Owada, she worked long hours and had a rising career as a trade negotiator. But she lasted just under six years in the job, giving it up to marry Crown Prince — and now Emperor — Naruhito.

Much has changed for Japan’s Foreign Ministry — and, in some ways, for Japanese women more broadly — in the ensuing three decades.

Since 2020, women have comprised nearly half of each entering class of diplomats, and many women continue their careers after they marry. These advances, in a country where women were predominantly hired only for clerical positions into the 1980s, show how the simple power of numbers can, however slowly, begin to remake workplace cultures and create a pipeline for leadership.