U.S., Japan reservists gain insight on dual missions during Zama tour 2 Photo by Dustin Perry

U.S., Japan reserve candidates gain insight on dual missions during Zama tour 2 Photo Credit:US Army Japan Flickr Site http://www.flickr.com/photos/usarmyjapan/4389296766/ Photo by Dustin Perry

While it is early days yet, on the whole it seems that the Japanese government has been doing an excellent job in handling the fallout from the earthquake, and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces have been working, if quietly, away at saving potentially up to 12,000 people in the first 24 hours according to one estimate from Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio. In general I cannot escape the conclusion that Japanese society as a whole has really functioned well to and has minimized suffering and saved tens of thousands of lives. Kyodo news reports that 530,000 have been evacuated from various danger areas and despite complaints from the Japanese media that information has been slow or confusing (it seems to me however that the confusion might be media, social or otherwise, generated), Japan’s response has become the envy of many, including the Chinese (jp).1 (H/T Tobias Harris) Reports (mostly economic) of the Japan’s demise appear shallow when considered in the context of Japan’s response to this tragedy.2 Maybe Japan’s soft power could be reinscribed in terms of some of the best features that this tragedy has shown about the national character, rather than just focused on anime, sophisticated toilets and traditional culture (none of which I have a personal problem with at all, to be sure).

Nevertheless, from the disaster response point of view, it has not always been this way. For the most part the 1995 Kobe disaster revealed many gaps in Japan’s emergency response capabilities. These were not just at the political level but also at the organizational level.  One example was the long drawn out constitutional discussion that took place in the wake of Kobe as to whether the SDF could even be deployed for civil defense. I plan to write a more comprehensive post on the holistic importance of the reforms of 1997 instituted by Hashimoto Ryūtarō at a later date. However for now one of the innovations from 1997 that should give the public some hope that there will not be a repeat of the ineffective Kobe response is the proposed first time activation of the reservists system.

In 1997 the Japanese reservist system was reorganized into 3 groups – in order of hierarchy: rapid response reservists, reservists, and reservist candidates.

The particular innovation that could stand out this time around is the new role of the “rapid response” reservist. These are essentially former SDF members with at least 1 year experience in the SDF and have not been out of the SDF for more than one year. As opposed to reservists, who do not necessarily need recent SDF experience (although also need to have had at least one year of SDF experience at some point in time), rapid response reservists have additional responsibilities such as keeping public order, and are a group that can be deployed to the front lines if need be. They also train for 30 days a year, as opposed to reservists who train for 5 days a year. They are considered to be an integral part of the Japan’s defense organizational framework in that that when they are called upon for service they are already organized as a unit that can be deployed immediately. I assume they probably also have a role in organizing any reservists that may also be called upon during a time of national emergency.

Now that the initial dangers look (knock on wood – checking Twitter feed to be sure) to be subsiding the additional numbers may be very welcome. Currently there are 5853 rapid response reservists,  and 33,400 reservists as of 2009 in Japan. Initially the government is looking to call on 1900 rapid response reservists and 4600 reservists. In among the less dramatic but surely appreciated roles, such as bathing duties and provisions dispensation, that they will perform, the group will also crucially assist the US forces with translations during their operations. It is important to emphasize that this will be the first deployment of the Japanese reservists, full stop – so this will be another interesting development to watch over the coming weeks.

Politically, the tragedy has changed so much about Japan’s political landscape. Needless to say now is not yet the time for such speculation given that many are grieving and the toll is being counted.

Personally, like the Christchurch earthquake, (I am from Christchurch) I have been spared personal grief, so for that I am thankful. I was a JET in Fukushima-shi for three years and I go back every year to visit family. I have heard there has been much damage. I have immediate family in Sendai-shi also, and I spent probably 1/3 of my weekends in that city while in Japan. I know it very well. In the space of three weeks the two places I consider home have been physically altered in ways I have yet to comprehend.

But again, I have been lucky.

1 日本の学校は避難所だが、中国の学校は地獄だ (“Japanese schools are emergency shelters however Chinese schools are “hell”) – reflecting on the fact that so many children died in the Sichuan Earthquake while in school.
2 My twitter feed informs me just now that some areas have avoided their turn in the rolling blackout because people have done such a good job at conserving energy!! I cannot be confident that such a situation would arise in every country I am familiar with!

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 256 post(s) on Japan Security Watch