Japan’s Military Is Recruiting More Women for Its Growing Global Role

Members of Japan Self-Defense Forces march during the Self-Defense Forces Day at Asaka Base, north of Tokyo, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

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Members of Japan Self-Defense Forces march during the Self-Defense Forces Day at Asaka Base, north of Tokyo, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013.

A looming gender imbalance is compelling Tokyo to create new jobs and facilities for females throughout its defense ministry.

Now that Japan’s military has the support of its government to engage more readily in overseas adventures, it has a new problem to contend with: how to expand its personnel rolls while the population at large shrinks.

Its task isn’t made easier by the largely ambivalent attitude toward engaging in foreign military affairs shared by many of its youngsters, who’ve been raised under Japan’s post-1945 pacifist worldview.

The Self-Defense Forces has hit upon one possible solution, which is to recruit more women into the armed forces.

“Hiring women makes a lot of sense,” Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, told Quartz. “Every modern military is expanding opportunities for women. And since Japan is falling into demographic oblivion, finding young men is going to be harder.”

To that end, Japan’s defense ministry put forward a menu of self-described “women-friendly” projects in its 2015 budget (pdf, pg 28-29). These include:

  • About ¥100 million ($817,000) to build and improve daycare facilities on SDF premises.
  • ¥20 million for the “expansion of training, etc. for enlightenment of awareness… eliminating the conventional mindset about gender roles in the workplace.”
  • Another ¥4 million to provide maternity dresses as part of military uniforms.
  • Last but not least, an unspecified amount earmarked to refurbish the women’s bathing facility in the officer training school of the Ground Self-Defense Force.

If the truth be told, the percentage of women in Japan’s military has few places to go but up. It was 5.6% in 2013, according to the latest Self-Defense Forces handbook. That compares to 14% in the US and 11% in Germany.

Ironically, the passage of the 2015 security laws making it easier for Japan to engage in foreign wars could make the military’s task all the harder, for now there’s a new sense that joining the military might result in actual fighting. That, plus an economy that’s somewhat improved since the 2008 financial crisis, has made it more difficult to find raw material, male or female, said Noboru Yamaguchi, a retired commanding general of the Ground Self-Defense Force and former advisor to the prime minister’s cabinet, in an interview with Quartz.

The military will also have to work harder to keep the women—and men—it recruits, Yamaguchi said. The general recounts one instance years ago of having to personally step in and prevent a younger officer from being disciplined by his commanding officer for requesting time off to spend with his newborn child.

The SDF has had to create a more family-friendly atmosphere that doesn’t pressure women to leave after becoming pregnant, said Yamaguchi.

“To prevent that female dropout rate, we knew we had to work hard,” Yamaguchi said.

The defense ministry quadrupled its marketing budget to a still-modest ¥200 million ($1.6 million) in 2015 for television and radio ads, online videos, campus visits, banner ads for trains, and other sundry methods to convince more young men and women to join the military. Next year’s budget proposal adds another ¥100 million.

The ministry did not respond to questions about its latest recruitment efforts.

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