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.
That view of women and their capabilities changed as Azuma ascended through the ranks. A decade ago, the rule banning women from serving on warships was lifted. She became the MSDF’s first female captain in March 2013 when she took command of the Setoyuki, which conducts training voyages. In March 2018, she was given command of a naval squadron consisting of four destroyers, the vessels that are on the front lines of Japan’s defense, patrolling and surveilling the country’s waters, including the helicopter carrier Izumo, which will be redesigned as an aircraft carrier capable of carrying Japan’s most advanced fighter jets. Some of Azuma’s ships joined the antipiracy patrols off the coast of Africa.
Some anticipate that Azuma will break another glass ceiling and become Japan’s first female vice admiral. When she was given the position, she said she was indifferent to the accomplishment: “I don’t think about being a woman. I will concentrate my energy on fulfilling my duties as commander.”
Other women are also breaking ground in the SDF, an institution in which 90 percent of personnel are men. Also last year, 1st Lt. Misa Matsushima became the country’s first female fighter pilot. Officially, the only positions off-limits to women today are those in the Ground Self-Defense Forces that would expose them to dangerous and toxic substances. Women will even be able to serve on submarines, once facilities for them are built in the subs.
The inclusion of women in these positions in the SDF does not reflect mere “consciousness-raising” about gender equality. Rather, it is the product of two inescapable facts. First, Japan faces a demographic trajectory that threatens its future in many ways. The government has forecast the number of citizens between the ages of 18 and 26 years old will shrink from 11 million in 2018 to 7 million in 2065; it was 17 million in 1994.
This constitutes a “silent crisis” for military recruitment, with nearly a quarter of recruiting targets unfilled. It is expanding the age range for new recruits but one increasingly compelling solution is to recruit more women. Currently, just 6.1 percent of SDF personnel are women; the government hopes to increase that number to 9 percent by 2030. For comparison, the figures in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, are 16.5 percent, 16 percent, and 12.2 percent, respectively.
A second reason to push for more women in the SDF, as in every other facet of life in Japan, is that in every way, the inclusion of women creates better results for an organization. That is not to say that women are necessarily better at decision making or military tasks, but they bring a different perspective and the evidence is clear that a diversity of outlooks in the decision-making process produces better outcomes.
Greater inclusion in the SDF faces several barriers, not least of which is a belief that some jobs are not for women (which is part of a more extensive social narrative about the place of women). That is eroding, but slowly.
Also contributing is Japan’s deeply ingrained ambivalence about the SDF. That too is changing, in the aftermath of the SDF’s heroic performance during the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, its contributions to overseas humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. Now, opinion surveys routinely show more than 90 percent public support for the SDF.
This new attitude is critical given the new security challenges that Japan faces. The external security environment is increasingly uncertain and threats to the country are diversifying and proliferating. There are mounting expectations that Japan will contribute more to regional and security as well. Women can and should be a vital part of that effort. Azuma and her colleagues are leading this vanguard.