Japanese Women Take Command, Finally

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Destroyers like those above are the backbone of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force. Female officers took command of two destroyers this week, the first time in post-war Japan that women have commanded frontline warships.

TOKYO – The next time Chinese sailors lock radar onto a Japanese warship, they may discover they’re aiming at a woman.

The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) this week appointed female officers to command two naval destroyers. It’s the first time that women have been given command of frontline warships since Japan’s modern navy was formed seven decades ago.

“It’s long overdue, and it’s part of a pattern of increasing responsibility being given to women in the Japan Self Defense Forces,” says Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University.

The milestone comes as Japan is locked in a dangerous standoff with China over ownership of islands in the East China Sea. A Chinese warship last month locked its fire-control radar on the Japanese destroyer JS Yudachi near the uninhabited islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. No shots were fired but the incident produced a formal protest from Japan and demonstrated the increasing volatility of the dispute.

The two female officers, Commander Miho Otani, 41, and Commander Ryoko Azuma, 39, took command of the JS Shimayuki and JS Setoyuki, respectively, on Friday. Both warships are used primarily for training purposes, so it’s unlikely they’ll be headed into combat soon.

But the appointments are significant nonetheless. The powerful but low-profile JMSDF is built around fast, multi-purpose destroyers and training is vital to both the Japanese and their American allies. The JMSDF works closely with the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is home-ported in Yokosuka, Japan. Destroyers are relied on for surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and anti-ship missions, as well as detecting and shooting down aircraft and ballistic missiles.

Female officers have commanded U.S. Navy ships since 1990, when Battleland contributor Darlene Iskra became skipper of the salvage vessel USS Opportune. In 2010, a woman took command of a carrier strike group – the very centerpiece of U.S. sea power. The USS Germantown, an amphibious landing ship assigned to the 7th Fleet in Sasebo, Japan, is currently commanded by a female officer.

Mulloy says exposure to the U.S. Navy and other foreign fleets has helped open the door for women in the JMSDF. So has the performance of women in peacekeeping missions, which are a core mission of Japanese forces and draw intense government and media scrutiny at home. So, too, the performance of women during the response to the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power disaster in northeastern Japan; the majority of translators in the JSDF are women, and they played an important role in coordinating Operation Tomodachi, the massive U.S. military relief effort.

“Women have proved themselves in the JSDF,” says Mulloy, a former British infantry officer who has closely studied Japan’s military. “Obviously, discrimination continues, but less so than in most private companies or public offices in Japan. JSDF has been slower in providing opportunities than the U.S. or most NATO countries, but it’s more progressive than most of Asia.”

More changes could be on the way. The Abe administration, which hopes to boost the economy by increasing the participation of women in the workplace, has initiated a review of restrictions on women in the military, as well.  The study, by the National Institute for Defense Studies, a think thank funded by the Ministry of Defense, will look at boosting the number of jobs that women are allowed to hold in the military, in part to make up for the declining national birth rate and projected recruiting shortfalls.

Women make up about 5.4 percent of the JSDF and are currently barred from many direct-combat jobs, such as the infantry and flying fighter planes.  The review is expected to take about a year – after which the Chinese may find more women on their targeting screens.