Japan achieved another first recently when a female naval officer (Captain Ryoko Azuma) was appointed the commander of the navy’s First Escort Division, which includes four warships including the 27,000 ton “Helicopter Destroyer” Izumo which looks like an aircraft carrier and can carry 28 helicopters. Japan has two of these ships (plus some smaller ones) which could also operate ten of the vertical takeoff F-35B stealth fighters and, as expected, Japan is now looking into doing that. While captain Azuma is the first female squadron commander she is but one of many firsts for women in the Japanese navy. It wasn’t until 2008 that all female officers were allowed to serve on warships. Before that female medical officers were allowed to serve as medical officers on warships. One of those, medical officer Hikaru Saeki, n 2001 became the first female admiral in the Japanese navy. The experience with female medical officers at sea apparently played a role allowing all women to serve at sea and then the appointment of a female officer to command a squadron. In this case, the First Escort Division has a thousand sailors, three percent of them women. Overall about six percent of the Japanese navy is female. Like many other major navies, more women are being recruited in part because there is a shortage of men willing or able to do this work.
Japan is also suffering from a shrinking population and a growing shortage of working age men and women in general. Captain Azuma joined the navy in 1996, at a time when the U.S. Navy already had hundreds of female naval officers working their way into the higher ranks. Young Japanese women knew that in the mid-1970s, the U.S. Navy began letting women into Annapolis (the Naval Academy) and flight school. Some 35 years later the U.S. Navy had women commanding combat aircraft squadrons, cruisers, an amphibious task force (expeditionary strike group) and a strike group (a carrier task force.) By 2014 twelve percent of crews were female in the U.S. Navy. This came about after American women were allowed to serve on American combat ships in 1994. In most NATO countries between 5-10 percent of sailors are women, while in Britain it is 10 percent, and in the United States 16 percent.
British women have served in the Royal Navy since World War I as a separate force, the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS, or "wrens"). The U.S. Navy had a similar system, which gradually faded away by the 1970s. In Britain, the WRNS did not disappear until 1993. In the 1990s, women were completely integrated into the Royal Navy and allowed to serve on ships.
The British Royal Navy had its first female warship commander in 2012. Actually female British naval officers had commanded smaller warships and in 2012 one took command of a minesweeper squadron. But command of a major warship is a big deal. This didn’t happen in the U.S. Navy until a female officer took command of a destroyer in 2002. That particular officer, Holly Graf, went on to take command of a cruiser (USS Cowpens) in 2008, but was relieved in 2010, because of complaints by officers that the captain yelled a lot and treated them cruelly. Turns out Graf had always been tough on her subordinates but that her superiors had always looked the other way (to avoid antagonizing politicians or the media), leaving Graf the impression that her rough manners were acceptable. In the end, her only punishment, aside from having to explain herself in front of several boards of officers, was to be forcibly retired at her highest rank (captain).
Over the last century, women have been increasingly a part of the military. In most Western nations over ten percent of military personnel are female. In the U.S. military, it’s now 15 percent. A century ago it was under one percent (and most of those were nurses and other medical personnel). More women are in uniform now because there aren't enough qualified men, especially for many of the technical jobs armed forces now have to fill.
During World War II over five million women served in the military, although they suffered fewer losses than the men, several hundred thousand did die. These women were often exposed to combat, especially when fighting as guerillas or operating anti-aircraft guns and early warning systems in Russia, Germany, and Britain. Russia also used women as traffic cops near the front line, as snipers, and as combat pilots. They tried using them as tank crews and regular infantry, but that didn’t work out. Women were most frequently employed in medical and other support jobs. The few who served as snipers or pilots were very good at it.
In the last century, there have been several attempts to use women in combat units, and all have failed. When given a choice, far fewer women will choose combat jobs (infantry, armor, artillery) than will men. But duty as MPs does attract a lot of women, as do jobs like fighter, bomber, helicopter pilots and crews, and aboard warships. That works. During a major war more women are willing to carry out combat tasks, thus the large number of Russian female snipers and pilots and female irregulars (guerillas and spies) in nearly all countries. After the war, all of these women were demobilized, but not forgotten. As more nations abolished conscription in the decades after World War II it became practical to recruit women for jobs that were difficult to fill (not enough qualified men) and women were willing to undertake.