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Women taking on more frontline roles in Japan's Self-Defense Forces

1st Lt. Misa Matsushima sits in a fighter jet at an Air Self-Defense Force base in Miyazaki Prefecture, southwestern Japan, on Aug. 23, 2018. She is the first woman to qualify as a fighter jet pilot in Japan. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A growing number of women in Japan's Self-Defense Forces are entering formerly male-dominated fields, with one recently becoming the country's first-ever female fighter jet pilot.

"I want to become a full-fledged pilot, no different from men," Misa Matsushima, 1st Lt. of the Air Self-Defense Force, told reporters in late August after a ceremony at a base in the southwestern Japanese prefecture of Miyazaki, marking the completion of a training course to become an F-15 fighter pilot.

The 26-year-old Matsushima, who stands just 159 centimeters tall, had dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot ever since watching the hit movie "Top Gun" starring Tom Cruise, portraying young naval aviators, when she was in elementary school.

"I'll be glad if more women are motivated to become fighter pilots because of me," she said.

The ASDF lifted the gender restriction on women operating fighter jets as well as reconnaissance aircraft in November 2015. Until then, Japan's Defense Ministry had considered the conditions too severe for women because of the extreme g-forces involved in flying fighter jets, which at times make it difficult for pilots to even breathe.

At the ministry's Joint Staff, which is in charge of the SDF's entire operation, some female officials from the Maritime Self-Defense Force and ASDF now occupy important posts.

In the Ground Self-Defense Force, women have taken on roles across a wide range of activities. For example, the regimental commander for logistics support, who leads some 700 subordinates, is female, while women have also become attack helicopter pilots and restrictions on them becoming tank drivers have been lifted.

The head of the 1st Escort Division of the MSDF, a four-ship squadron including the flagship helicopter carrier "Izumo" with a crew of 1,000, is also a woman.

The ministry has also started considering allowing women to work aboard submarines.

If the plan is put into action, the only restrictions remaining for female members will be GSDF corps that handle hazardous substances and the corps dispatched to areas where dust particles are formed in the air.

These two corps are subject to placement limitations under the domestic Labor Standards Law -- from the viewpoint of protecting women's bodies from harmful substances that could affect pregnancies -- according to the Defense Ministry.

While the recent trend of promoting women to the frontlines in fields of national defense reflects the government's "female empowerment policy," the ministry is also trying to utilize more female members to ease a human resources shortage.

As of the end of March, the number of working SDFs members stood at 226,789 out of the full quota of 247,154, a 91.8 percent sufficiency rate. The number of women was 14,686, accounting for only 6.5 percent of the all members, although the ministry says it aims to have more than 9 percent women by 2030.

To secure enough personnel, a high-ranking ministry official said it is "urgently necessary" to appoint more women to a wider range of jobs including high-ranking posts, with the ministry considering measures such as raising the upper limit on the job seeker's age and the retirement age.

But obstacles stand in the way to adding more female SDF members due to a lack of women's facilities, such as lodgings. Even the National Defense Academy, the educational body that trains future officer candidates located in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, has limited facilities for women. The academy restricted the quota for female applicants to 60 out of a total of 480 positions, at the entrance examination held for fiscal 2018.

Renovations are not only needed in the workplace to employ more women but also at some training facilities.

"Although we'd like to boost the number of female officers, we can't possibly manage it due to a significant amount of money required to renovate the facilities," said another high-ranking ministry official.

To create a more women-friendly work environment, the ministry set up day-care centers for children inside some garrisons and bases, and revised its system so that it can re-employ former female workers who have left to raise children. Four women have been rehired from January through September, based on the amended system.

"When we have to dispatch our personnel for natural disaster rescue operations or international missions, female members are in demand because they are usually easier to talk with. We want to aim to be an organization with diversity," said another top-ranking official.

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