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Japan’s First Woman Pilot Flies through the Glass Ceiling

In the Japanese military, First Lieutenant Misa Matsushima will take to the skies as the country’s first woman fighter pilot. This appointment comes just three years after Japan lifts its ban on women pilots in fighter and reconnaissance roles.

The 26-year-old Matsushima will be flying F-15J air superiority fighters out of Nyutabaru Air Base on the home island of Kyushu. As a Yokohama native, she first joined the Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) in 2014 after graduating from the National Defense Academy.

Her inspiration? “I saw the movie ‘Top Gun’ when I was in primary school, she told reporters. She went on to add that she sees this as an opportunity for others: “I wish to continue to work hard to fulfill my duty – not just for myself but also for women who will follow this path in the future.”

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But the celebration is bittersweet. Matsushima is just one of roughly 14,000 women who serve in the Japanese military, making up just 6.1% of all service members in the island nation compared to just over 16% in the United States.

This reflects a culture which has been historically difficult for women in professional roles. In fact, a 2013 survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare found that 41.6% of married women in their 20s feel that their place is in the home.

This all comes despite a 2013 pledge by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to integrate more women into the workforce. The so-called ‘Womenomics’ plan has come under scrutiny by international media. Whereas women in countries like the US and Germany leave the workforce for child care needs, women in Japan largely abandon their professional careers due to lack of upward mobility. In fact, 70% of Japanese women leave the workforce after starting their family.

However, there are signs of change.

In March of this year, Captain Ryoko Azuma was appointed as the first woman squadron commander in the Japanese naval arm, the Maritime Self Defense Force. Her command post leaves her in charge of a four ship squadron comprised of 1,000 sailors including the helicopter carrier, JS Izumo.

Unfortunately these changes are far from altruistic. Facing an aging population and diminishing workforce, the Japanese military permitted woman enlistment into military roles beginning in the late 1980s. As is the case with several other nations, a need to secure its borders in a volatile region drove higher command to open up the armed forces to tap into a larger part of its population. This included opening up the National Defense Academy to women in 1992.

But in the end, Matsushima is proud to be serving her country.

I want to become a full-fledged pilot, no different from men, as soon as possible,” she said in a press release. She went on to say, “I hope to be the one to inspire more people to become a pilot.”

Featured Image by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

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