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Japan's military remains the realm of men

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Members of Japan's Self-Defence Force's honour guard at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo. (Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai)

In Brief

Despite efforts to improve its gender balance, Japan’s military remains a man’s world. Though Japan is a non-traditional security actor, the policies and activities of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) remain fundamentally discordant with this identity.


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Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 call for women to ‘shine’ broke with long-standing traditions in Japan as one of the world’s most unequal nations in terms of gender relations. Ranking 101st in gender equality, Japan is among the lowest third of the World Economic Forum’s index of 145 nations. In 2016, less than 6 per cent of Japan’s military personnel were female. By comparison, women are nearly 16 per cent of the United States’ military, and about 15 per cent in Canada and Australia.

But these percentages fail to illustrate many qualitative variables affecting gender integration and the socio-political and historical contexts of each country. Moreover, they are unable to capture the nuanced dynamics of female participation in the military.

By definition, ‘participation’ implies a shared relationship and the welcoming of (female) engagement. But in Japan, the relationship between women and the military is strongly driven by a repression of female abilities and the sexualisation, commodification and exploitation of women.

The kind of roles available to women in Japan won’t expand through participation in combat via the SDF. The need for women to show their ability in combat, a perceived man’s domain, implies a move to become more like men. Other than ‘The Tale of the Heike’ (Heike Monogatari), in which women are deified as samurai, women in wartime are still best known in Japan for having been ‘comfort women’. Today, Japan’s contemporary gender equality efforts are owed mainly to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and Japan’s 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law.

Abe has set a 9 per cent target for female participation in the SDF by 2020. But the SDF’s recent efforts to include women leave a lot to be desired.

In 2014 the SDF hired bikini idol Azusa Yamamoto and other models to portray the ‘feminine side’ of the SDF in a promotional calendar, rather than inviting real female SDF members. That same year, Lieutenant-Colonel Chizu Kurita was assigned to NATO headquarters as advisor to the NATO Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security. But her appointment has falsely portrayed female opportunities in the SDF. These efforts serve to deepen entrenched cultures of masculinity as well as distance women from the SDF. This has contributed to the poor status of women in military and non-military institutions.

But there are some good signs. The Ministry of Defense’s Measures for Promotion of Gender Equality is a small but fundamental step in a positive direction. The National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security is another. These policies are a moral, ethical and military necessity for the SDF, particularly with its non-traditional security operations.

The SDF’s gender composition and gender equality policies ought to reflect Japan’s engagement in, for example, international task forces where a key focus is the needs of vulnerable women and girls, enhancing women’s empowerment and countering gender-based violence, among other activities. The SDF could target the training of female officers for meaningful roles in areas of negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.

But despite the potential for change, Japan’s gender equality policies fail to reflect its society’s contemporary needs. The preference of males over females in Japan’s military and wider society will continue to have negative consequences for the country. Abe’s moves towards remilitarising Japan while overlooking valuable opportunities to enhance the status of women will only exacerbate the demographic problems shared by the military and civilian sectors. These challenges represent an overarching battle shared by the SDF and Japanese society — a battle both appear to be losing.

Scott N. Romaniuk is a PhD Candidate at the School of International Studies, University of Trento. Tobias J. Burgers is a Doctoral Candidate at the Otto Suhr Institute, Free University Berlin. 

One response to “Japan’s military remains the realm of men”

  1. I think it is important to note that, while the percentage difference between women in SDF and the Australian military is substantial, numbers tell a slightly different story (even acknowledging that the SDF is a few times bigger than the ADF). The SDF has approximately 13,500 women, in fact more than the 8,800 in the Australian armed forces. The Japanese figures are here:

    I do not believe that recent PR strategies or ‘one-off’ promotions distance women from SDF. SDF materials, especially ‘approachable’ items like on-line videos and the Defence White Paper in Manga (yes, there is one), in fact pay a lot of attention to female engagement. The stated cultural factors in low female enlistment are not unique to Japan. The structure of the Japanese job market probably has a greater influence. A large percentage of SDF recruits are from areas with slow economies. In these environments, young men are under more pressure to find steady long-term employment, while young women are permitted (or content) to stay in short-term, casual work, or to continue higher education. Women do not find it necessary to go to the SDF, if they even register the option.

    Gender inequality is a big issue for Japan, but the SDF was probably not at the top of Abe’s mind when he announced his drive to enhance opportunities for women. There are other, more pressing elements, such as child care, wages, and glass ceilings. That said, the female officers and cadets I have met through my research are talented, dedicated people and the SDF would be better with more of them.

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