While many SDF are returning to their bases, or rotating out of Tohoku, operations are by no means winding down. The Sankei EX (May 25th) had a photo special reporting on the SDF’s continuing efforts in the disaster zone:

Tohoku Earthquake: SDF Continue the Search for the Missing

SDF members search even the smallest water pipes for missing people (May 8th, Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture)

SDF members search even the smallest water pipes for missing people (May 8th, Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture) (Source: Sankei/GSDF)

The SDF are as reliable as ever. With the Tohoku Earthquake and Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear disaster, it is impossible to miss the widespread appreciation of the SDF members’ strength of character. Following the earthquake, the three services embarked on their largest-ever search and rescue mission entailing 100,000 people delivering support on the ground including the search and rescue of the missing, food and water supplies, bathing facilities and helping people get back on their feet, as well as freeing the roads of debris. Medics patrolled isolated towns and islands to give medical checks. Even now, within the Fukushima Dai-Ichi evacuation zone, SDF members wearing ‘sauna suit’-like protective clothing continue the search for missing people.

Scene 1: The elite forces combating radiation

An elite force fights against the radiation and high waves. Within the 30km-radius evacuation zone around Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant, the tough situation facing the GSDF members searching for the missing is on full display. Members of the GSDF’s only paratroopers, 1st Airborne Brigade, are making full use of their superb fitness, patrolling the coastal breakwater with the sea up to their waists, risk their lives searching for missing people.

The GSDF began its search in the evacuation zone on April 18th. In addition to the airborne troops, the Central Readiness Regiment – kept ready for overseas disaster dispatch – have around 3100 people involved. Around 200 heavy machinery is present for clearing rubble to aid in the search, and as of the 24th May, 57 bodies have been recovered.

One SDF member, working while checking his dosimeter, said, “22 microsieverts in 2 hours. It’s 10 times the level in Koriyama, but its okay.” Nevertheless, under his protective clothing he wears an adult diaper, with a mask and rubber gloves he is fully covered by this ‘sauna suit’. With the rainy season coming and temperatures rising, the situation is growing more severe – it is time to fight.

Scene 2: Bonding on Operations in these Extreme Circumstances

“It was hell. Even if we found a corpse, the search for survivors came first.”

Immediately after the earthquake struck, the GSDF’s 44th Infantry Regiment (based in Fukushima) entered Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, in the midst of the tsunami’s devastation and with water to their waists, they rescued over 1000 people by boats.

With each passing hour, the chances of survival dropped, and eventually the SDF switched from rescue missions to searching for the missing.

105 bodies (May 19th), 81 (May 20th), 59 (May 21st)… The regiment continued to record the retrieval of each body. The remains included even newborns and grandmothers still holding onto their grandchildren.

“There were many more bodies that the ones we retrieved. Some of the troops even cry in their sleep as they recall what they saw,” one regimental officer told us. Many of these SDF members had been on the ground following earthquakes, typhoons, and air crashes, but no experience is quite like the extreme circumstances in which they continue to work.

Yet the victims of this tragedy encourage the SDF in their work.

The members of the 44th Infantry Regiment and the GSDF 14th Brigade (based in Zentsuji, Kagawa Prefecture), also working in Ishinomaki, received a letter dated May 1st from a young girl who saw many children swept away from Ogawa Elementary School. It reads:

“Because of the tsunami, my friends at Ogawa Elementary School died. Because the SDF are working so hard for us, I will also do my best.

“Please help Japan. We’ll always support you. People of the SDF: thank you.”

One member of the 14th Brigade said, “Hearing the warm voices of the victims keeps us going everyday.” Even though they have no connection to the affected areas, they work frantically building bonds that will never be broken.

Translated without permission.

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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