Capt. Ryoko Azuma made history when she became the first woman in the Maritime Self-Defense Force to command a warship squadron last year. Azuma’s new position was a testament to her hard work and dedication, but it also reflected new realities that Japan faces as it staffs a 21st century military. Enlistment is falling as demand is rising for ever more capable soldiers and sailors. Azuma is only the first of what must become a long line of senior female military officers.
Women were allowed in the Self-Defense Forces since its inception but only to serve as nurses. Azuma joined the SDF in 1992, part of the first class of women admitted to the National Defense Academy. She, along with other women enlistees, were given different curricula than men, and were restricted to noncombat duties — typically on escort ships — when they entered active duty; it was thought that they were unsuited for such difficult, challenging and dangerous assignments.