The Role of the Japan Self-Defense Forces in the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake

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By Yuki Tatsumi – The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake (higashi nihon dai shinsai) that hit Japan on March 11 was the greatest natural disaster in Japan’s recorded history.  At the time of this writing, the northeastern and eastern parts of Japan’s main island (Honshu) are still coping with its aftermath.  Although initial recovery and reconstruction is already underway, it will probably take years for the most hard-hit areas to fully recover from the devastation caused by the earthquake and the tsunami that followed.   

Given the magnitude of Friday’s catastrophe, the resilience and orderliness of Japanese society has been truly remarkable.  Those who are affected by the earthquake and the tsunami continue to embrace their challenges in a calm, civilized manner.  Even as those that are hardest hit face shortages of basic necessities such as fuel and food, looting and/or civil unrest, common in the immediate aftermath of a large-scale disasters, has been rare.  The rest of the country also copes with the difficulties without panic, as their daily lives are disrupted by rolling blackouts, delayed public transportation, and a shortage of basic commodities.  For now, the extraordinary self-discipline among the people of Japan demonstrates one of the engines for Japan’s remarkable reconstruction in the post-World War II period. 

At the moment, the world’s attention has fixed on the crisis of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  While this is understandable, what seems to be overlooked is the large-scale relief effort that continues for those who are hard hit by last Friday’s disaster.  Even as the nuclear crisis continues to unfold, the missing need to be accounted for, the evacuated cared for, and damaged cities, towns, and villages recovered.  Now with nearly 50,000 people evacuated from the area in the vicinity of the crippled nuclear power plant, the need for humanitarian relief for the displaced people is more pressing than ever. 

The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) plays a critical role in orchestrating the largest relief efforts in its postwar history.  The JSDF began its search and rescue and relief operation only hours after the earthquake and tsunami.  On March 13, Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered the mobilization of 100,000 JSDF personnel.  As of March 17, approximately 76,000 JSDF troops had been deployed from JSDF bases throughout Japan and are engaged in activities such as search, rescue and recovery and the transport and distribution of relief supplies.  In addition, 10,000 reserves have been called up for the first time. 

This is an extraordinary experience for the JSDF in many ways.  For one, the mobilization of 100,000 personnel – or as many as 180,000 when counting logistical support – is the largest-scale mobilization of the JSDF since World War II.  Also, this is the largest-scale US-Japan joint operation for the JSDF.  The US Department of Defense launched Operation Tomodachi (Friends) shortly after the disaster struck Japan, and mobilized sizable naval assets including the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Battle Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force, and air assets.  This naturally requires close coordination between the two militaries on the ground.  In addition, the JSDF must also coordinate with the local governments in the affected area on the reception of relief support teams dispatched from foreign countries (including the US), as well as the delivery and distribution of the supplies that are from other parts of Japan.  In short, this may be, by far, the most complicated operation the JSDF has executed in its history. 

The JSDF even assumes an important role in the ongoing nuclear crises.  As the Japanese government struggles to prevent a meltdown at the crippled nuclear power plant, JSDF units specially equipped with the capability to respond to the disasters that involve chemical, bio, and nuclear emergencies have been engaged.  They are attempting to cool the container that holds the fuel rods, screen local residents for radiation levels, and decontaminate them when necessary.  When the nuclear crisis is averted, it will be up to the JSDF to decontaminate the residential area in the vicinity of the power plant so that the currently displaced people can return to their homes safely. 

The central role the JSDF demonstrates the degree of legitimacy and support that the JSDF has gained among the Japanese public.  The prominence of JSDF’s role in responding to last Friday’s disaster stands in a stark contrast with the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, when a relatively strong anti-military sentiment among the local leaders may have, in part, contributed to the delayed deployment of the JSDF for relief activities.  The relationship between the JSDF and the Japanese public has come a long way.  The visible role played by the JSDF in responding to the nation’s disaster is a testament of the improved relationship between the JSDF and the Japanese public. 

While the world continues to watch nervously as Japan tries to gain upper hand on the nuclear crisis, JSDF’s rescue and relief operations will continue.  Although not widely publicized, the JSDF will continue to play a critical role as Japan tries to recover from this unprecedented natural disaster.             




Photo Credit: A team from the 15 Brigade, JGSDF before heading to mainland Japan on March 16, 2011. By Sara Csurilla


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