In accordance with the policy known as “Womenomics” promoted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which aims to increase the number of women in the labor economy as well as in leadership positions in Japan, the Japanese Ministry of Defense — one of the most male-dominated ministries in the government — has taken multiple steps to facilitate women’s acquisition of new or advanced opportunities, roles, and responsibilities.
In 2006, the Ministry of Defense published its first Basic Plan to encourage gender equality within the organization. In light of the expiration of the first Plan in 2011, the Ministry updated the Plan in March 2011 to make it effective through March 2016. One of the main goals of the Basic Plan was hiring more women as both members of the Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) and civilian personnel.
Despite the fact that the overall effectiveness of the Plan has been under discussion, the number of female SDF members has increased, according to the Ministry. In 2016, the number reached 13,989, which is equivalent to 6.1 percent of the total membership of the SDF. The Ministry currently seeks to make women 9 percent of the total SDF membership by 2030, and has a short-term goal of women constituting at least 10 percent of new SDF recruits each year. While these goals can be seen as ambitious, the figures are still far less than the makeup of servicewomen in other countries such as the United States (15.5 percent in 2015) and France (15.2 percent).
The key challenge of empowering women, in general, is that increasing the number of women within an organization is often not effective enough to achieve the goal. The core issue discouraging female participation lies in the lack of organizational flexibility. Today, the Defense Ministry not only pursues an increase in the number of female SDF members and civilian officers, but also seeks to improve the work environment, organizational system, and culture to allow both male and female personnel to enjoy a better balance between career and personal life. For instance, it is working to reform its recruitment and personnel evaluation systems, introducing flextime and teleworking arrangements, and facilitating employees to take childcare leave.
As a defense institution, the Defense Ministry also faces unique challenges in moving forward with female empowerment. First, any discussions on organizational change of the SDF, not only gender issues, can be more sensitive than similar discussions surrounding its counterparts abroad because of the controversial status of the SDF under the post-war constitution (which Abe plans to revise in near future). Additionally, women are excluded from certain positions within the SDF, for the stated reasons of “protecting motherhood, maintaining operational efficiency in close combat, ensuring privacy between men and women, and pursuing economic efficiency.” Today, the Ground SDF and the Maritime SDF prohibit women from assuming positions in the special weapons defense unit and submarine unit, respectively.
Nonetheless, like its counterpart in the United States, the SDF has eased such regulations multiple times over recent years, opening up significantly more opportunities for women. For instance, the Ministry of Defense revised the Air SDF’s regulations to allow female members to pilot fighter and surveillance aircraft in 2015. In March 2016, the Ministry also announced that it would let women pilot anti-tank helicopters in the Ground SDF and serve on the crews of minesweeper and missile ships in the Maritime SDF. Most recently, in April 2017, the Ground SDF also opened the positions in the infantry and tank companies as well as the reconnaissance unit to the women. According to the Defense Ministry, these moves allowed women to take up almost all combat roles in SDF.
Diversity in leadership positions also continues to be an issue for the Ministry; however, there have already been signs of improvement. The current defense minister of Japan, Tomomi Inada, is the second female defense minister in Japan’s history and symbolizes the Abe administration’s commitment to providing equal work opportunities to men and women. Likewise, Japan dispatched a lieutenant colonel of the Ground SDF, Chizu Kurita, to NATO headquarters in late 2014 as the adviser to the NATO Special Representative for Women, Peace, and Security in the office of the secretarygeneral. Lt. Col. Kurita’s appointment is also seen as a part of the government-wide efforts to promote women’s empowerment, especially given the fact that the position was created by an agreement between Abe and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former secretary general of NATO.
Another noteworthy female leader in the SDF is Cmdr. Miho Otani of the Maritime branch. She undertook the position of captain of an Asagiri-class destroyer, the JS Yamagiri, in February 2016 as the first woman to serve in such a position. Like other working mothers, Otani puts a lot of effort into finding time to be physically close to her daughter. Yet it is sometimes difficult for her to pursue both of her responsibilities as commander and mother, especially during long-term sailing. Otani’s successes and challenges demonstrate to the SDF what challenges are faced by women in the service and thus illustrate potential paths to improving those conditions.
Even at a lower level, the women in the SDF make significant contributions to humanitarian activities and disaster relief. In Kumamoto Prefecture — which faced multiple powerful earthquakes in April 2016 — female personnel of the Ground SDF served meals and ran temporary bath facilities for people who were evacuated. These women not only function as first responders to natural disasters, but also assist local communities during the rebuilding process.
As Japan explores its options and approaches for enhancing national security and the SDF’s roles in sustaining peace, stability, and the prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region, it is critical for the government to pursue ways to allow qualified women within the Defense Ministry to assume relevant positions and titles, not only in the areas showcased above but also the rising areas such as cybersecurity and intelligence. Even though it may be challenging to open certain roles to women with regard to physical differences and privacy issues, flexibility and diversity will help the leaders of the Ministry run their organizations more effectively and accountably, and facilitate further nationwide discussions regarding the contributions of women and SDF to the society.
Mayuko Yatsu is Project Manager/Senior Research Analyst at Washington CORE, L.L.C., an independent research and consulting firm located in Bethesda, Maryland.