Japan has a shrinking population and the government is looking at ways to stabilise this demographic decline to a sustainable level (100 million people) by 2065. There seems to be little hope that the decline can be reversed, only managed.

This decline has implications for all sorts of sectors of Japan’s society, including its military. At a time that the country has recently liberalised its use of the military from purely a self-defence force, that same military is facing personnel shortages. (Currently there are about a quarter of a million men and women in the Japanese military, with a further 50,000 in reserve.) 

This shortage is not necessarily solely due to the shrinking population, but also due to the fact that that smaller population is less eager to join the military than it might have been in the past. As Quartz magazine describes:

“[The Japanese military’s] 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.”

One of the ways to ameliorate this personnel shortage is to look to expand the role of women in the Self-Defence Forces. The percentage of women in Japan’s military stands at 5.6% (2013) which is significantly lower than the comparable figurs in Germany (11%) and the USA (14%).

“’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.’”

Unfortunately, there are many reasons why expanding the number of women in the military will not be easy. First, the fact that the military is no longer a “self-defence” force makes it more likely that members of the armed forces will be ordered to fight, and die, overseas. Secondly, the economy is improving in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, making the military less attractive as a career, according to Noboru Yamaguchi, a retired commanding general of the Ground Self-Defence Force. To counteract these factors and to make itself more “women-friendly” the Japanese defence ministry has included in its 2015 budget a number of initiatives:

“About ¥100 million (USD817,000) 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.”

Furthermore, the defence ministry has increased its marketing budget to convince more men and women to join the military. (You can see one of the online videos that are part of this campaign above this article.)

Of even more importance is the atmosphere that the military creates – is it a family-friendly one where women (and men) aren’t pressured into leaving or making impossible choices once they start to have babies. According to Yamaguchi, to do this the Japanese Self-Defence Force has “to work hard”. Hopefully, all places of employment will follow suit.

A falling population will affect all areas of a society, including its military. To think that the number of “bayonets” a country has is irrelevant in this day and age is naive. One need only read about the tensions in the South China Sea and over the Ryukyu Islands to see that armies, strength and perceived weakness are still important in our “enlightened” age. Increasing the number of women in the Japanese Self-Defence Forces will only paper over the demographic cracks I think. As the country gets smaller and older, these cracks will only widen.

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...