Miho Otani by Nikkei photographer, Kyosuke Tomoda
© FT

As a success story of Japan’s “womenomics” programme, Miho Otani seems to offer it all: a working, mid-forties mother with a stellar career, the respect of male colleagues — and control of a 3,500-tonne warship.

Japan’s first female captain of a destroyer-class vessel, however, sees the country’s gender equality drive as a work in grindingly slow progress. Her control over 220 crew, an anti-submarine torpedo system and six types of missile launcher may have won the grudging approval of her father, she says, “but the wider mentality of Japan’s male community still has to change”.

Her comments come amid deepening disappointment with the progress of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reform programmes, particularly the “womenomics” efforts to address Japan’s longstanding failure to promote women to senior positions.

Mr Abe’s initially stated target of putting women into 30 per cent of management positions by 2020 has been dramatically scaled back, with officials conceding that the ambition “was not shared by society as a whole”.

Despite that, says Commander Otani, her career has been an example of what Japan can do if it abandons preconceptions over what its women can and should do. As a lieutenant with aspirations of higher rank, she married at the age of 29 and was immediately asked when she intended to quit.

“Once people realised I was not going to do that, I took on the duty of making way for the next generations of women to follow me. I felt a responsibility to open the doors.”

For Japan’s military, cajoled into fundamental change under the more nationalistic policy stance of Mr Abe, Cdr Otani is a powerful symbol of changing times.

Over her 20 years with the Marine Self Defence Force, she has watched China become more potently armed and assertive while Japan has shifted from postwar pacifism to a country whose leadership has reinterpreted the “peace clause” of the constitution and is comfortable with the idea of deploying military force overseas.

Cdr Otani is a self-declared patriot who decided while studying at university to enter the National Defence Academy after seeing television coverage of the 1990s Gulf war. She became one of the academy’s first female graduates.

“I was shocked to discover what was going on in the world, and how different it was to the peaceful life I led here in Japan,” Cdr Otani said in her first interview since being made captain of the JS Yamagiri earlier this year.

“I will do everything to protect my country.”

From the bridge of the Yamagiri, currently preparing to slip into the Pacific for a month-long training mission under Cdr Otani, the means to do that are close at hand.

The ship bristles with the weaponry that Japan would need in the sort of conflict she and her colleagues must now actively imagine: a maritime clash over disputed territorial waters or islands, very possibly involving a Chinese vessel. The escalation of tensions in the region, say analysts at IHS Jane’s, could push annual defence spending in the Asia-Pacific region from $435bn in 2015 to $533bn by 2020.

In common with other MSDF captains, Cdr Otani has a growing body of experiences to consider as the training mission begins: foremost among them an incident in 2010 when a Japanese Coast Guard ship was rammed by a Chinese fishing vessel near the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in China) whose sovereignty is disputed between Beijing and Tokyo.

A diplomatic dispute erupted at the time and military analysts have spent subsequent years warning that the build-up of military and civilian vessels in the disputed region raises the risk of “accidental” clashes on the high seas.

“I keep that incident in my mind all the time,” says Cdr Otani.

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