Commander Ryoko Azuma will command the MSDF's First Escort Division, which includes the 800-foot helicopter destroyer Izumo and its escort. All told, she will command four ships and 1,000 sailors — only 30 of whom are women.
"I don't think about being a woman. I will concentrate my energy on fulfilling my duties as commander," said the 44-year-old Azuma during the ceremony in which she accepted her command at a shipyard in Yokohama.
She also downplayed her gender when asked if she wanted to be a role model to other women. "I want to devote myself to becoming a person that will inspire others," she said. "I want to do my best to carry out the heavy duty I have been given."
Azuma enlisted in 1996 as a young woman, but she was barred from serving on a warship (except as a medical officer) due to her gender. The MSDF did not repeal this ban until 2008 and like most countries they still only allow men to serve on submarines.
She follows in the footsteps of Hikaru Saeki, the first woman in Japanese military history to hold a star rank when she was promoted to Rear Admiral in 2001. Due to the warship ban, she had spent her entire MSDF service as a medical officer.
"This is the first time a woman was appointed for the job," a spokesman for the MSDF told AFP. "But she wasn't chosen because she was a woman."
Her appointment to the command of the First Escort is a landmark moment in the Japanese Self Defense Force's (JSDF) push to increase the number of women in their ranks. Women are drastically underrepresented in the JSDF, only making up about 6 percent, or about 14,000 personnel. The JSDF intends to increase that ratio to 9 percent by 2030.
Women can hold any job in the JSDF save for serving in submarines, tank units or infantry units. In 2015, the JSDF opened up additional jobs for women, including minesweeping and special patrol units.
The driving factor behind the JSDF's push is a manpower (or should that be womanpower?) shortage as the population continues to age. Unlike private companies, the JSDF cannot bring in youthful foreigners to supplement their numbers.
Japan's population is aging rapidly, with the average age rising from 38 in 1990 to 47 today, the second-highest median age in the world. It also logs the world's second-lowest birth rate — the only country to beat Japan for both of those dubious honors is the tiny European city-state of Monaco.
Worse, the trend shows no signs of stopping. On the contrary, it's expected to get worse: Tokyo estimates that only 7 million citizens will be between the ages of 18 and 26 in the year 2065, compared to 11 million today.