SDF members search the rubble

SDF members search the rubble using sticks (Source: MoD)

Last week, an enlisted man in the MSDF tried to avoid a second deployment to the Tohoku disaster area by exposing himself in a video store. This is just one example of the psychological price of the SDF’s disaster relief efforts. As 25,000 troops head to the region in a surge designed to locate and retrieve the remaining bodies of the missing, it would be foolish to overlook the lasting effects on those serving their country. Thankfully, the Ministry of Defense has apparently recognized this and will begin conducting psychological check-ups of GSDF troops deployed to the region one-month, six-months and one-year on from their deployment.

A Kyodo release on the condition of SDF relief workers gives some insight into the stresses involved:

“This is the most dreadful sight that I have ever seen,” a veteran member of the Ground Self-Defense Force said, while his colleagues were recovering a burned male body from the debris in the coastal city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, about one month after the disaster.

Looking back at the early days of the rescue operations, a GSDF member said, “It was like hell…Bodies were everywhere, but we put priority on finding survivors.”

[...] Some personnel sometimes cry even when they sleep, probably because they remember the distressing scenes in their dreams.

There is already one psychotherapist working with GSDF members in Fukushima, according to a Yomiuri report yesterday:

Ito Arizono, 29, provides precious relief to GSDF members whose physical and mental fatigue has been accumulating since the disaster struck more than a month ago.

In a consulting room in the GSDF’s base in Fukushima, experienced GSDF members tell Arizono about their worries.

Some have a somber manner, and some speak in detached tones, but the common thread, Arizono said, is “a sense of anxiety stemming from their experience of seeing a large number of dead bodies over a long period of time.”

The consultations with the GSDF members are unlike anything else in her professional experience, Arizono said. While listening to them describe atrocious scenes they have witnessed, she tries to create a supportive atmosphere.

For some, these efforts will have come too late. In Japan Business Press, one SDF official paints a harrowing picture of relief efforts: the smell on land, decomposition, inadequate protective clothing supplies, lack of communications equipment, the list goes on…

That said, there are two problems with assigning 100,000 personnel to these efforts. The first is that it is almost impossible to find replacements.

At the moment the same units and the same personnel work for three weeks in the disaster area, then have one week for rest and recuperation, then work another three weeks and so on.

The police and the fire department replace their personnel every week or so, but for the SDF, as it is trying to maintain a system with 100,000 personnel involved, it is very difficult to get hold of replacements.

In the weeks and months ahead, the situation on the ground is going to be even more terrible and the SDF personnel are going to realize this fact.

Some GDSF personnel involved in the first tour are already dead. Faced with the huge numbers of dead bodies he came across during his tour, one SDF member could no longer take it and committed suicide. You could call this death in the line of duty. A GSDF Sergeant Major in his 50s has also fallen ill and died. This is also death in the line of duty.

The SDF is stretched thin and years of neglect are exacting a heavy toll on the minds, bodies and wallets of those working so hard to get everything back to normal. As the same SDF official states: “With each passing day they see more things that they don’t want to see, smell more things that they don’t want to smell, and morale inevitably starts to flag.” Japan must protect its protectors, not just now, but from here on.

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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