It is no easy task being captain of a Japanese warship.
There are China’s rising maritime ambitions, North Korea’s sanction-flouting missile antics and the shifting parameters of a pacifist constitution to deal with.
And for Commander Miho Otani, there is one more challenge to add to the list: the responsibility that goes hand in hand with being the nation’s first female captain of a Japanese destroyer.
Commander Otani, 45, made Japanese maritime history earlier this year when she was promoted to the senior-ranking position of captain of the Yamagiri destroyer, overseeing a crew of 220, only ten of whom are women.
The Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) appointment marked a major step forward for Japanese women in the armed forces, long renowned as a male dominated world mirroring the nation’s sharp gender imbalance across the professional spectrum.
Today, there are 2,530 female MSDF personnel out of 41,774, with defence officials having set the fairly modest goal of raising the percentage of women service members from 6 per cent to 10 per cent within 15 years.
Commander Otani, however, has long been blazing a trail for women within the MSDF, with a growing list of “firsts” under her belt: she was one of the first female graduates at the National Defence Academy and more recently, she become the first female skipper of a training destroyer in 2013.
Her latest promotion carries even greater significance, with Commander Otani, who is also a married mother, facing a myriad of sensitive geo-political challenges, ranging from increasingly heated territorial tensions to tempering the rising maritime power of China.
It’s also a timely appointment for the prime minister Shinzo Abe, neatly complementing his policies of womenomics which aim to help revitalise the world’s third largest economy by supporting more women in the workplace.
However, speaking to the Telegraph on board the destroyer Yamagiri, docked in a picturesque green bay at the Funakoshi base in Yokosuka, 28 miles south of Tokyo, Commander Otani conceded her path had not always been smooth sailing.
After marrying at the age of 29, she was immediately asked by a male colleague when she was going to leave her job – a common assumption still facing many working Japanese women today.
She also admitted that male attitudes still needed to change today, in order to make policies supporting working women effective, while admitting her own personal “dilemma” of attempting to balance her career with being the mother of a now 12-year-old daughter.
Poised, polite and cautiously friendly, Commander Otani, dressed in immaculate top-to-toe whites with a neat black bow tying back her hair, talked from the head of a table in a meeting room with military-style clocks, photographs of Japan’s most senior politicians (all men) and reproduction Impressionist paintings on the walls.
Describing the inspiration behind the start of her maritime career more than 20 yeas ago, she said: “I was living life as a regular university student and I saw the Gulf War on the news.
“I was shocked to see what was going on in the world and how different it was from my life in Japan. I felt a sort of patriotism when I saw the news. That’s when I saw a newspaper ad for the National Defence Academy (NAD) recruiting female officers and I decided to join.”
She smiles recalling how she first encountered opposition e not from her male classmates, but closer to home: “My family was opposed to the idea. My father felt that the NDA was not a place for a woman to study, it was more a man’s thing.”
This, however, failed to curtail her ambitions in carving a new path for female officers: “I wasn’t really thinking in terms of going up the ranks. I felt more compelled to fulfill my duties as one of the first female students of the NDA and to pave the way for future female students who would follow in my footsteps and open doors for them. I feel responsible as a female to open up doors for other female officers.”
During the interview, Commander Otani was cautious in providing specific examples of the gender discrimination that she and her female colleagues might have experienced in the MSDF.
However, after describing the moment as a junior lieutenant officer when she was asked when she was quitting her job after marrying, she said: “Back then, people were just not used to working with women so they did not know how females would work. So I felt responsible as a female officer to show everyone – with my own work ethics and attitude – that I could do the same jobs that my male colleagues could do too.”
As the mother of a daughter, plus having been married twice (her current husband is a fellow destroyer captain), Commander Otani is acutely aware of the modern day struggles facing working women trying to balance family with careers.
“My work is on a ship, so I have to be away from my family for many months at a time,” she said. “So I might have to ask my parents to help take care of my children. I feel the dilemma of not being there to raise my child.”
Among the biggest challenges facing women in the armed forces was not the task of creating gender-balanced policies – but the challenges of implementing them in a famously hard working culture, according to Commander Otani.
“Women can actually take three years leave after a child is born,” she said. “That’s longer than in the US. But the problem is that the policies are there, but no one is able to actually take advantage of them. It’s really about the mentality of people – especially male officers – together they have to come up with ideas to change this, so they can actually utilise these policies.”
The pursuit of a new generation of young recruits has prompted the MSDF to position itself increasingly as a modern and attractive work prospect – as reflected in initiatives such as so-called Sailor Idol, a nationwide contest to find the most popular male and female sailors.
The ten female crew members who work on board the Yamagiri most likely count themselves as particularly lucky to be working for the nation’s first female captain – with Commander Otani even hosting regular “joshikai” (female gatherings).
Among them was Mayu Kanzaki, 28, Japan’s first female gunnery officer, who spoke with warm appreciation of her captain: “She is very friendly and very fair. She takes care of the officers and their families. She thinks it’s important for us to have a private life and feels responsible for everyone on board.”
And the main topic of conversation during her “joshikai”? “Gossiping,” said Officer Kanzaki with a laugh.
Commander Otani’s appointment was “highly significant”, marking new levels of support for female officers in the MSDF, according to Garren Mulloy, a British associate professor at the faculty of International Relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama prefecture.
“The Japan Self-Defence Forces have generally been considered to be far behind the UK, US, Denmark, Australia and other armed forces in their consideration of women,” said Professor Mulloy. “This is not just a clear statement that there has been a sea change in policies and attitudes, but that the Japanese have caught up very rapidly and successfully.”
He added: “The socialisation factors within Japanese society make for a very much male dominated culture, and women who can learn to navigate and manage that environment will do well, but that will probably be a minority of women,” he said.
“The biggest challenge is possibly too much attention on her gender and not enough on her capabilities as a naval commander. Also as the trail blazer, any issue, error, or fault could be highlighted and used as an example of how ‘women react’, but this is what every officer in every force in the world has faced.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, Commander Otani insisted that she ultimately felt unhindered by her gender:“I feel that male and females are very much equal in terms of careers. I get the same salary. […]There are some duties I can’t assume, such as going on submarines, but other than that, there are not many jobs that I cannot do. I feel it’s equal.”