A member of the Japanese SDF watches progress on road clearing.

A member of the Japanese SDF watches progress on road clearing. (Source: FT/Lindsay Whipp)

Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are more active than ever. Working alongside their civilian (although technically civilian themselves) and foreign counterparts, their public profile is larger than ever. Although the SDF’s previous jaunt in Iraq saw much public attention, this current crisis sees BDU-clothed officials on our TV screens on a daily basis discussing the ongoing trials at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, and search and rescue and relief operations across the disaster zone. The level of cooperation is unprecedented, but also part of an evolving trend as this extract from a 2007 interim report (In Times of Crisis: Global and Local Civil-Military Disaster Relief Coordination in the United States and Japan) from the Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis demonstrates:

A growing role for the SDF and civil society

The SDF’s role in domestic and international crisis management contingencies is growing and still evolving. Even though the SDF has long contributed to consequence management operations in Japan, more often than not the nature of its contribution has been a secondary support role, usually geared toward recovery activities such as debris removal and the longer-term care and feeding of the affected population. After all, the SDF personnel are not meant to be first responders, and their base of operations is almost always farther from the disaster site than the local fire and police personnel. It was only in 1996 that disaster relief support activities were first designated as one of three primary roles for the SDF’s capabilities (see Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1995).

As a largely self-sufficient organization, the SDF often takes a day or two to mobilize, and it does not have the kind of daily contact with the local population that local responders do. In addition, the police department keeps detailed and updated records about the local population (who lives where, their ages, even information about physical disabilities or special medical conditions), which helps tremendously during the immediate response. During the Kobe earthquake relief effort, for example, police officers and firefighters were responsible for over 95 percent of live rescues from collapsed buildings. In contrast, the SDF played a more significant role in the recovery of the fatal victims of that tragedy, demolishing collapsed houses, debris transport, and assisting with medical treatment or food delivery.

Since the Kobe earthquake, however, and due in part to some of the legal and organizational changes described above, awareness among local political leaders about what the SDF can contribute has grown in Japan, and the SDF is able to deploy more quickly than it could before. Local governments have come to appreciate the value of the SDF, which is relatively self-sufficient, provides unique resources under a unity of command, and is accustomed to risky work. Moreover, as local budgets tightened throughout the late 1990s, local authorities also appreciated the fact that they did not need to reimburse the central government for the cost of an SDF dispatch. As voters became more aware of the SDF’s capabilities and understood that it was now easier for local officials to request SDF assistance, there was also a political price to pay if the public perceived that a mayor or governor waited too long to seek SDF support. When in doubt, therefore, the default has largely shifted in Japan to a quicker involvement of the SDF as opposed to waiting to see if its services are really necessary.

This phenomenon was clearly evident during the response to the Niigata-Chuestsu earthquake, which struck a mountainous part of central Japan on October 23, 2004, killing sixty-seven people and injuring over four thousand. The rugged terrain complicated access and gave the SDF’s helicopters a prominent role in the relief effort. Unlike the situation in Kobe, the SDF was involved in about 35 percent of successful rescues (instead of less than 5 percent), and its troops constituted close to half of the 270,000 relief personnel dispatched to the disaster area. According to one Ground SDF officer, “The most effective thing we did was to decide the action swiftly without waiting for the official order from the prefecture, to obtain the communication method and to grasp the real-time information properly” (Nagamatsu 2006). The SDF also carried out its more traditional role of construction equipment transportation, debris removal, and the provision of food, water, shelter, and bathing facilities. It is also worth noting that the entire rescue effort was covered extensively on television and watched throughout the country, conveying the impression that the SDF is essentially an equal partner to police officers and firefighters when it comes to disaster relief operations.

You can purchase the full final report (released 2009) at the IFPA site.

The question remains as to how or if the SDF will capitalize on their higher public profile, but it seems most likely that they will slink back into the shadows of the public mind until they are needed once more. For those in uniform in Japan, it is largely a truly unappreciated career – it would be nice to see this change.

A final question remains as to whether the SDF exposed to radiation in the attempts to cool the Fukushima Daiichi reactors will receive any extended compensation for their role (post-retirement subsidized healthcare, for instance) like their civilian counterparts in the police and fire services, or the private workers of TEPCO. I really hope they receive commensurate support, all those involved are true heroes in a country lacking true modern heroes.

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch