Self Defense Forces gain new cachet as emergency responders

Self Defense Force Bath

Among the more than 20,000 Self Defense Force personnel deployed on search and rescue missions in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster area, a small number of troops are assigned to provide temporary bathhouses near evacuation shelters. At Yamada Town in Iwate Prefecture, soaking in the bath offers welcome relief to tired evacuees who could not take baths or showers for several weeks. (Photo courtesy of Self Defense Force - Joint Task Force Tohoku)

Cultural News, 2011 May Issue / Tohoku Bulletin & Japan Behind News

By Motoaki Kamiura in Tokyo

Translated by Alan Gleason

Nearly two months after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, and the subsequent leakage of radioactive materials from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, Japan remains in crisis.

Compared to emergencies in the past, however, Japan’s national guard known as Self Defense Force troops were dispatched to the disaster area with remarkable speed this time. The Naoto Kan administration quickly requested that the SDF send as many troops as possible to engage in relief and rescue operations. The SDF responded by mobilizing 106,000.

That is out of a total of about 240,000 Ground, Air and Maritime SDF personnel. If one excludes staff assigned to day-to-day administration and security operations, this means that nearly every SDF member available was dispatched to the stricken area. As a deployment for disaster relief purposes, this was on a scale without historical precedent.

According to the commander of the Ground SDF unit assigned to Kamaishi, one of the coastal cities inundated by the tsunami in Iwate Prefecture, his troops were deeply affected by the sight of the devastation and the suffering of local people who had lost their families and homes. The troops were so motivated, he said, that he feared they would collapse from exhaustion as they struggled to clear away the rubble, and he had to order them to take rest breaks.

What springs to mind is the contrast between this situation and that of the Kobe Earthquake of 1995. At the time a new reformist administration under Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama had just replaced the conservative government of the Liberal Democratic Party. Many members of the Murayama cabinet believed that the very existence of the SDF violated the Japanese Constitution, and anti-SDF sentiment was widespread among regional administrators and labor unions as well.

The chaos in the immediate aftermath of the Kobe Earthquake was exacerbated by the fact that the prefectural governor took an inordinately long time to formally request that the SDF dispatch troops to the area. The SDF was then criticized for its tardy response to the disaster. Needless to say, the SDF retorted that this was not its fault.

In the wake of the 1995 fiasco, SDF participation in regional disaster preparedness drills has come to be accepted as a matter of common sense. Predictions of a massive earthquake that could strike Tokyo have led to such curious sights as a line of armored SDF vehicles roaring down the streets of the city’s most prestigious Ginza shopping district.

Essentially, the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake turned out to be an ideal opportunity for the SDF to demonstrate to the Japanese public that its greatest contribution might be in the area of emergency relief.

It should also provide a boost to SDF recruitment efforts, which have flagged in recent years. We can expect an influx of young people signing up from the hardest hit areas of the Tohoku region in particular.

In the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake, it was reported that fresh recruits who had been attracted to the SDF by its relief efforts were shocked to find themselves training to operate machine guns, tanks and missile launchers.

According to a survey conducted by the Defense Ministry, the Japanese public views the primary roles of the SDF as being disaster relief (both at home and abroad) and participation in international peacekeeping efforts. Protection of the country from foreign invaders comes in second.

The emergency relief operations of the SDF in the wake of the Eastern Japan Earthquake are, it would seem, a perfect illustration of what Japanese citizens expect of their armed forces today, and of the SDF’s ability to rise to those expectations.

Motoaki Kamiura is a Tokyo-based military analyst. He appears frequently on national television programs.

Alan Gleason is an editor, writer, and Japanese-English translator. He lives in Tokyo.

Self Defense Force Water Supply

A Self Defense Force personnel is assigned at a water tank station at Takata Middle School evacuation shelter in Rikuzen-takata City, Iwate Prefecture. (Cultural News Photo)