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» The Japan-US “military” response to the earthquake, and the strengthening of the military alliance as a result

By Prof. MIZUSHIMA, Asaho
Waseda University Faculty of Law

(Translated by Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation [JANIC] Taskforce for Disaster Response)

On the evening of March 11th, 2011, Defense Minister Kitazawa ordered the dispatch of 50,000 members of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to aid in the relief work for the Great East Japan Earthquake. (The number was increased to 100,000 by Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the morning of the 13th.) From the night of the 11th to the 12th, SDF vehicles arrived with a number of large buses at the town hall parking lot of Okuma, a town near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station .

Unlike the Great Hanshin Earthquake, a tsunami had devastated a wide area on the coast, ranging 600 km from the north to the south. The fire department, the police, and the Japan Coast Guard assembled forces from all over the country in an unprecedented scale; however, in terms of working with an extensive area as such, the SDF had the largest organized manpower in the country, with large and rapid transportation vehicles, aircraft, and ocean vessels. As a result of the initial response of the SDF, those who were swept out to sea or isolated on the rooftops of buildings were rescued even at night.

In order to rescue people in the cold water as soon as possible, the SDF deployed, in full, the resources which had the capacity to act at night. Following this initial rescue, the SDF also played a large part in the relief operation by managing the transport of supplies, providing food, water and bathing assistance, and even moving bodies of the deceased to temporary burial. It was in charge of transporting supplies from other municipalities to the disaster-affected regions; everyday, over 100 tons of supplies were brought to Matsushima base in Miyagi Prefecture and distributed to evacuation centers by land vehicles and helicopters.

The SDF also worked to resolve the nuclear crisis in Fukushima as well as to rescue tsunami-affected victims: on March 14th, 200 members of the special units, were mobilized to inject water to the plant’s cooling systems. As well, within the 20-km zone, air transport was provided for people who needed help, searches were conducted for people whose whereabouts were unknown following the tsunami, and for people whose evacuations were not completed.

As of May 12th, 2011, the total number of people rescued from the disaster of March 11th stood at 14,937. 8,306 bodies were recovered; 3,430,000 meals and 27,084 tons of water were provided; 545,773 people made use of the bathing assistance provided; 16,242 people received medical-related assistance; and 319 km of roads were re-opened throughout the affected areas of the three prefectures in the Tohoku region. (Asa Gumo newspaper, May 19th, 2011).

The actions of the SDF in response to the disaster were done in the framework of disaster relief, which is one of the “primary mandates” for the SDF, while the main mission of the SDF is national defense. However, my opinion is that the SDF should be reorganized as units that specialize in local, as well as overseas, disaster relief.

In reality, however, such an opinion is in the minority. The idea that disaster relief should be done in a way that does not hinder the mission of national defense is the mainstream thought.

The response of the U.S. military, which deployed a strategy in conjunction with the SDF, to the disaster was fast. Ambassador John Roos, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, woke up President Barack Obama, and the initial response [to the disaster] was decided. (Yomiuri newspaper. May 13th, 2011.)

The U.S. military deployed a carrier group off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, including the Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, as its core. 19 naval vessels, 18,000 personnel and 140 aircraft were assembled, and the so-called “Operation Tomodachi[Friends] ” was launched.

The relief efforts of the U.S. military were centered mainly in Iwate prefecture and Miyagi prefecture. It is because of the criteria set by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). It required that activities done by the U.S. military be 80 km away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Thus, except for a small part, the U.S. military did not conduct relief work in Fukushima. Operations were managed in a way not to extend the danger of radiation to American troops.

The “Fukushima” incident had an effect on Operation Tomodachi. 7,500 family members of U.S. military personnel who were living in Japan were sent back to the States. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, George Washington, whose homeport is Yokosuka, was kept on standby in the Sea of Japan, which is the opposite side of Japanese archipelago.145 members of special units called the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) were dispatched to Japan, but their activities were limited to outside the 80-km radius from the Fukushima nuclear power plant; they went back home after staying for three weeks without doing anything other than waiting at the far area from the nuclear power plant.

Why did the U.S. respond so quickly to the disaster in Japan?

Since the time of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, there has been instability in the Japan-U.S. alliance. After Kevin Maher, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Japan Affairs, claimed Okinawans are “masters of manipulation and extortion”, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly unanimously protested his comment on March 8th. Two days later, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, apologized to Japan’s Foreign Minister, Takeaki Matsumoto. Then, the earthquake occurred 24 hours after that.

The relief activities themselves are urgent and important for the people in the affected area. However, it is necessary to discuss separately the relief activities done by the U.S. military and how Operation Tomodachi was positioned by the U.S. military. Beyond emotional episodes of individual relief efforts and of hard efforts to search the deceased, Operation Tomodachi was utilized with the aim of increasing military cooperation between Japan and the United States.

On April 22nd, Mainichi newspaper released a special feature titled “100,000 troops: the largest mission of the Self-Defense Forces in history”, and wrote that “in Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. military assembled 16,000 soldiers for the purpose of disaster relief. The unprecedented scale of deployment took one step of joint operation between the U.S. military and the SDF, and of the use of civilian airports and ports by American troops. It can be said that the reality was “a war simulation.”

Senior Foreign Ministry officials pointed out that “the nature of the operation is different, but operation with the use of civilian facilities by militaries, landing and so forth, also became a practice in the event of an emergency in the Korean peninsula in practice.”

The U.S. military contributed to the relief activities done in Kesennuma and Oshima, Miyagi Prefecture; landing craft were used to transport generators from Tohoku Electric Power Company. (Yomiuri newspaper. April 4th.) The unit in operation was the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is stationed in the problematic Futenma U.S. military base in Okinawa. There is no doubt that the troops provided the aid to the people with their hard and faithful effort, for which the residents are deeply thankful. However, as the top officials of the U.S. military emphasized that the aid was possible due to “the geographic location of Futenma U.S. base” and the presence of the marines, the Okinawa media decried it.

The Ryukyu Shinpo newspaper (March 18th) was critical: “Why is Futenma base, which is located so far away from the areas affected by the earthquake, important now? It took three days to dispatch units, so saying “immediate response” sounds very strange.” Okinawa Times (April 9th) criticized the discussion linking the Marine Corps response to the disaster and the continued existence of the Marine Corps base in Okinawa as “political use of the earthquake”.

In an editorial on May 2nd, 2011 titled “Being true friends: the Great East Earthquake and the U.S. military aid”, Tokyo Shimbun newspaper soberly pointed out the aim of the Operation Tomodachi. It mentioned the aims were to use the war time emergency headquarters as disaster emergency headquarters[in order to justify the presence of the headquarters substantially for wartime], to secure the US from “Fukushima effect,” and not to allow Japan to fall from its status as an economic superpower. “The military was utilized as a tool for diplomacy; it is unlikely that this [type of] diplomacy comes as the result of only good intentions. ‘Operation Tomodachi’ is directly linked to the interests of the United States as we see”.

Because of the gratitude feeling in Japan towards the assistance and relief work done after the Great East Earthquake, there is a tendency to hesitate discussing them from the view of global political dynamics. However, it is the reality that there are many problems behind this “heartwarming story”, and strong concerns have been raised among sensitive Asian countries about the perceived strengthening of the military alliance between Japan and the U.S.

December 10, 2012
Professor MIZUSHIMA, Asaho, LL.D,

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