On Saturday, May 7th, Asahi Shimbun published the views of three experts on the SDF’s role in providing assistance and relief to Tohoku (p. 13). The opinions did not make it onto Asahi‘s website, so it is up to JSW to step in with a rough translation. Here is the third pundit’s view:

Towards a Non-Military Disaster Relief Organization

Asaho Mizushima (Waseda University Professor)
Born in 1953. Specialises in constitutional law, legislative policy, and peace studies. Worked as assistant professor at Hiroshima University, and has been in his current position at Waseda since 1996. His books include “The Study of Modern Military Legislation – The Process of Demilitarization”.

Prof. Asaho Mizushima gives a talk on "What is wrong with the US-Japan Security Pact" in January 2011

Prof. Asaho Mizushima gives a talk on "What is wrong with the US-Japan Security Pact" in January 2011 (Source: 東京革新懇)

The recent natural disaster stretches over 600 kilometers, 26,000 people have been killed or gone missing, and 120,000 people have been forced to live in evacuation centers even today. The extent of the damage and victimhood greatly exceeds that of the Kobe Earthquake.

From the lessons of the Kobe Earthquake, I consider it necessary to form a regular disaster relief organization, like that of the fire rescue teams, while criticizing how easy it is to simply deploy the SDF. However, with so much devastation, in the current situation it is impossible not to rely on the SDF, who are exceedingly better at mobilizing its manpower, using its logistical strength and offering an integrated approach to land, sea and air operations.

Every opinion poll shows that a large number of Japanese appreciate the SDF’s disaster relief activities. In their experience searching the rubble of the collapsed buildings in the Kobe Earthquake, the SDF found that chainsaws to safely demolish houses and other ‘life-saving equipment’ used by fire rescue teams enhanced their ability to conduct disaster relief operations.

The non-commissioned officers of the SDF, largely in command of the disaster relief efforts on the ground, come from the Tohoku region. Some of them are working even though they and their families are victims of the disaster. To maintain the unprecedented scale of the operation, 10,000 troops, they do not take enough rest, and some have even died from overworking. It is important that we provide care for the psychological stress of this work.

However, there is something else that must be recognized – the disaster relief mission is not the SDF’s core duty, i.e. the defense of the country. In the 2006 Amendment to the SDF Law to include overseas deployments as part of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, disaster response is a ‘secondary mission’, in short it has been tacked onto the SDF’s duties. This comes from the self-image that ‘to the core, the SDF is a fighting force’.

In the current disaster relief operations, the Commanding General of the GSDF North-Eastern Army is running a joint command for the three services. Also, according to media reports, the Assistant Chief of the Ground Staff Office (a Major-General) has been seconded to Yokota Air Force Base to liaise with US forces in Japan.

In the name of ‘disaster relief’, Japan is carrying out operations under the assumption of a ‘military emergency,’ and Japan and the US are performing a full-scale ‘trial run’ of liaisons between them based on the Guideline for Japan-US Defense Cooperation. I am concerned that little by little, the ‘military’ side of the SDF is being emphasized, and they cannot help but become increasingly integrated with the US forces in Japan. Whether this is constitutional is doubtful. The public support for the the disaster relief operations does not automatically mean that the people approve of the reinforcement of the ‘military’ side of the SDF.

Japan currently faces the crisis posed by the unprecedented great disaster and nuclear crisis. However, in the future, the SDF’s ‘military’ context should be gradually reduced and be converted it into a multi-purpose non-military disaster relief corps, allowing it to deploy overseas.

[Again, special thanks to Hisanori Hirata for his translation help]

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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