The Japanese Defense Ministry intends to allow female crew members to serve on Maritime Self-Defense Force submarines, ending a policy of having men-only crews, the Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.
This change is aimed at alleviating a personnel shortage arising from the force’s expanding range of duties and the nation’s chronically low birthrate.
The ministry aims to have female personnel serving on submarines from about 2023.
The change also will end the restrictions on positions female personnel can hold in the Self-Defense Forces, except for certain positions in the Ground Self-Defense Force that are restricted due to legal constraints.
Since 1993, the force has gradually rolled back restrictions on positions women can hold. In April 2017, the force unveiled an initiative encouraging more women to join the force, a move aimed at doubling the proportion of female personnel from about 6 percent at the end of 2016.
Although restrictions on women holding positions including front-line infantry units and others that could potentially see direct combat have been lifted, women were still barred from serving on submarines.
Submarines, which strictly conduct covert actions, have a crew of about 70 personnel. They frequently operate undersea for a month or longer, so crew members live together in close quarters for long periods.
“Submarines have no changing rooms,” a senior officer said. “When personnel have a shower, they get undressed and dressed in a corridor.”
There are no rooms, toilets or baths especially for women. The ministry has said that submarines cannot guarantee a work environment that gives consideration to separate sexes.
However, the force is facing a serious shortfall in personnel.
At a time when China is stepping up its maritime advances, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has been increasing security missions in the East China Sea.
Since the end of 2017, the force also has been tasked with monitoring North Korea’s maritime smuggling.
Submarines already commonly operate without full staffing, but the government plans to increase the fleet from the 18 submarines to 22.
“The proportion of female personnel is rising, and this is no longer an age in which we can fulfill our missions with male personnel alone,” a senior Defense Ministry official said.
As a first step, the ministry will establish living spaces and toilets for women as part of an upgrade of facilities used by the submarine training unit in Hiroshima Prefecture.
After that, it plans to prepare crew members over five years through a training and education program.
The ministry is already allowing female personnel to board submarines for short-term voyages to gauge aspects that need improvement. It will consider whether living spaces can be set aside for both sexes, by installing partitions or taking other steps.
As a result of this change, the only positions that remain off-limits to women will be on the front lines of the nuclear, chemical and biological weapon defense unit that handles toxic substances, and the unit for digging tunnels, which involves physically demanding labor during drilling and excavation operations.
The ministry’s view is women should be restricted from both these units to protect expectant and nursing women, as stipulated by the Labor Standards Law.
“Enabling women to serve on submarine crews effectively means restrictions on positions women can serve have been abolished,” a senior ministry official said. “We want to secure talented human resources.”