Sendai Port on March 12th

Sendai Port on March 12th (Source: Kokusai Kougou)

The Sankei sat down with Eiji Kimizuka, the commander of the Joint Disaster Response Taskforce based out of the Ground Self-Defense Force Camp Sendai (home of the headquarters of the GSDF’s Northeastern Army) to discuss the lessons of the disaster response operations. Kimizuka speaks rather frankly (and in a way that was really difficult to translate – so forgive any errors and feel free to make corrections in the comments) but seems to have been the subject of some heavy-handed editing by the Sankei.

Kimizuka discusses the initial response and joint operations with the Americans in the first part, and he emphasized he difficulties he faced in coordinating the response.

The lesson he singles out in the second part, the importance of base maintenance/service staff and facilities, is a major problem within the Ground Self-Defense Force particularly. The largest Self-Defense Force branch, it has recently been subject to personnel cuts by the Ministry of Defense that have torn apart the maintenance capabilities of the force, leaving fewer people to man the bases, work in the motor pool, and feed the personnel stationed there. This was something that many GSDF members were aware of before the earthquake, but the difficulties these reductions may have caused (so far and possibly into the future) are serious indeed. Hopefully the current operations in Tohoku, and the sum total of the SDF’s experiences during the earthquake, will be examined by the Ministry of Defense and lead to a review of the personnel cuts underway.

The final part discusses the hardships of the troops on the ground: poor nutrition from canned rations and having to refrain from using the bathroom in the field. This, as other translations at JSW have shown, has been a large part of the coverage of the SDF’s relief operations. The SDF have been working to the bone, and it’s uncomfortable for many observers. They go without baths, the ability to use the bathroom, proper lodgings, all because of their belief that they must endure until the people of Tohoku are saved.

This blogger, among many others no doubt, wonders if this might actually be increasing the mental and physical stress on the troops, carrying with it a significant burden that could have been avoided if the SDF took advantage of available lodgings in hotels, temples and other places, and partook of their own field baths more than once a week.

There is no doubt that the SDF have shown a significant ability to deal with hardship and a lot of personal determination to work for the people of Tohoku, something that is admired in Japanese culture, but the fallout could be great.

Anyway, enjoy the article. It originally came in three parts (1, 2, 3), but I’ve joined them together below:

* * * *

The Self Defense Force’s Greatest Operation Ever: Joint Disaster Response Taskforce Commander General Eiji Kimizuka

(By Masahiro Ishida)


General Eiji Kimizuka, Commander of the Joint Disaster Response Taskforce

General Eiji Kimizuka, Commander of the Joint Disaster Response Taskforce (Source: Sankei)

Eiji Kimizuka: Born in Kanagawa Prefecture, 1952. 58 years old. Commander of the GSDF Northeastern Army. Graduated from the National Defense Academy in 1976 (majoring in civil engineering). Studied in the US twice, was section chief of the GSDF staff in the Defense Agency and head of personnel. Promoted to Commander of the Northeastern Army in 2009. Enjoys outdoor activities like scuba-diving and mountain-climbing.

* * * *

Part 1: His whole career for the victims of the disaster

It is now three months after the Great East Japan Earthquake. The area hit by the gigantic tsunami is now showing the effects of the large force of 100,000 service members engaged in disaster relief work in the first joint Ground, Air and Maritime Self-Defense Force operation. Over 9000 service members have been clearing the rubble in the face of harsh conditions and encounters with the dead. Over 4,000,000 meals have been provided as part of the extensive disaster relief effort. What challenges has the SDF’s greatest ever operation posed for its commander?

Ishida: Were you expecting an earthquake of such a large scale?

Kimizuka: It was assumed that an earthquake would occur in the ocean off Miyagi Prefecture. When I took up my post two years ago, I was told,”There is 99% chance of an earthquake within the next 30 years,” and although it is unusual, the media picked up on this too even though it isn’t normally discussed because tourists wouldn’t come, and it could lower land prices. We made us more aware that it would happen someday, and so we prepared.

Ishida: When did you realize the full scale of the disaster?

Kimizuka: I saw the full picture at dawn the next day. Nevertheless, the advancing tsunami was filmed from above by helicopters. Seeing the land engulfed by the tsunami didn’t compare to the real thing. Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture in the north was damaged, as was Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture to the south. The extent of the area affected exceeded all our expectations.

Ishida: What was your first reaction?

Kimizuka: I made two vows to myself and one as joint commander, so three in total. The first was to be the last hitter, for me it was a last stand – I felt strongly that this was to be all or nothing for us. Then I told myself that it was fate for me to be in that position at that time. My 30-odd years of cultivated know-how, to be at this point in my career was fate, I thought, and I wanted to bring it all to bear in service of the victims.

Ishida: And as joint commander?

Kimizuka: As the SDF disaster relief operation was to be the first joint operation, including the further assistance from 20,000 American service members, I thought that managing and coordinating these forces would be a difficult task. There was no manual, and there was no-one else in the world with such experience. There was no trodden path, nothing. However, after me there would be a path for others. I was being entrusted with a task that would be a lesson for the those in a similar situation in the future. I resolved myself and braced for the worst.

Ishida: You wanted a rapid reaction from the forces…

Kimizuka: My aim was to provide relief and rescue to the survivors, so I needed people who could get to work quickly. We received all kinds of reinforcements from all the branches of the SDF. If they didn’t all have the same orders and markings, they would have became completely dispersed.

Ishida: How did you manage the coordination with American forces?

A USAF Chief Master Sergeant at work in the debris left behind by the tsunami

A USAF Chief Master Sergeant at work in the debris left behind by the tsunami (Source: kokuzou)

Kimizuka: To tell the truth, it was quite difficult. We knew that we would receive 20,000 American servicemen to provide relief for the victims of the disaster, but it took up a lot of our coordinating capabilities. How could we effectively use that manpower to help the victims in Tohoku? They also wanted to know the answer to this question. There were two key points: 1, mutual communication; 2, offering them tasks in areas in which they excel.

Ishida: Tell me about the trust issues in your relationship with the American military.

Kimizuka: Soon after the Americans arrived, the radiation problem flared up here. We measured the levels everyday, even though I told the Americans that the radiation levels were below the standard limits for the GSDF, they didn’t trust our readings. So, everyday to build our mutual trust, we shared our radiation data.

Ishida: Beginning with the restoration of Sendai Airport, which was buried in debris from the tsunami, we have seen a lot of commendable cooperation.

Kimizuka: I had been looking for suitable tasks for the American forces, and Sendai Airport was the first major hit. We wanted to open the airfield up quickly. We wanted to see civilian airplanes eventually taking off. I heard they had the right abilities to be particularly suitable for restoring the airport, bringing air traffic control back to working order quite possibly from scratch, and I thought, “Well, bring them in!” Meanwhile, something which was not picked up on by the press was the role of Japanese contractors, brought in by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Trade and Tourism, who cleaned up the main runway’s vehicles within one day. Japan is an incredible country, you know.

  • [Translator's note: The interview reads like it has been heavily edited down in places. I have tied up some of the loose connections in the translation, to the best that I am able, but it seems as though Kimizuka is critical of the job done by the Americans, but this is simply guesswork from the disjointed sentences presented in the Japanese text. It is equally possible that Kimizuka is happy with the work done by the Americans and is simply wishing to reframe the answer to highlight native governmental response too.]

* * * *

Part 2: The Importance of Base Maintenance Personnel and Facilities

General Eiji Kimizuka shows the "Hang in there, Miyagi!" stickers currently worn by SDF members in the prefecture.

General Eiji Kimizuka shows the "Hang in there, Miyagi!" stickers currently worn by SDF members in the prefecture. (Source: Sankei)

Ishida: The voices of gratitude for the SDF’s operations are amazing!

Kimizuka: As commander of these operations, it makes me glad that the job we came to do is valued. I am honestly delighted that we are both helpful and appreciated.

Ishida: Over the past three months, what are the key messages you have been focusing on giving the troops?

Kimizuka: There are three messages. The first is handling the corpses in a way that is respectful and considerate as if they were still alive, paying our respects to each one. Even though there have been service members affected emotionally and mentally traumatized by this, they have received adequate care within the team. Second is “work first, comfort later”. I’ve been telling them that first we must endure, after that we can relax. Helping the victims is our number one priority so, for example, while service members eat cold canned rations in their trucks, the victims are served hot meals. While the victims have hot bathing facilities,  our troops only bathe once a week. First we must give comfort to the victims, as commander, it has been my grave duty to press this message again and again.

The third message is, as the main focus of our operations turned towards supporting the lifestyles of the victims, we began considering how we can deliver not only material needs but give them hope for the future. At the same time, some service members started wearing stickers saying “Hang in there, Miyagi!”. I thought this was a good idea, so I ordered all 100,000 members to wear the sticker in order to deliver this message of hope to the victims.

Ishida: Regarding the service members themselves, what do they value in their work?

Kimizuka: That would be the public’s support, or possibly the messages of gratitude they have received from the victims, I think. Speaking as their commander though, I think service members are most proud of  are their own units. This probably isn’t something we should say to outsiders, but if they were asked, that is what they would want to say.

Ishida: There are long-term operational challenges that have been raised, right?

Kimizuka: We have realized the importance of base service units. Typically, this base (Camp Sendai) has less than 2,000 people stationed here. As it only has to feed 2,000 people, it doesn’t have the capability to provide all kinds of food and materials. At one time, 5,000 people were accommodated here. With so many people, we could only provide two and a half meals, with the most basic lunch becoming dinner. This was a blow to our capabilities. The people who kept the base running were the base service units. Although we were aware of this, they were the target of administrative reductions, and the number of service members in these units were reduced.

Ishida: There were other shortages too, weren’t there?

Kimizuka: At one time the gas, water and electricity all stopped, and there was no gasoline, but on the base we only had gasoline and kerosene for operational use. We received offers for gasoline from all over the government, and supplies were sent to Sendai and Tagajo.

Ishida: Camp Tagajo was hit by the tsunami, wasn’t it?

Kimizuka: It was damaged by both the tsunami and the earthquake, but while the pipes from the fuel tanks were knocked out of alignment, they didn’t break. This is thanks to forethought many years ago, when in preparation for the worst case, the pipes were fitted with flexible joints that won’t break during an earthquake. Because of this, this relatively large amount of fuel was helpful. Our airplanes were able to keep flying, our cars could keep driving, and we were able to offer gasoline to everyone. The people maintaining these bases are an important asset. In the past they were considered useless and so they were being reduced in number, but in our time of need, they allow use to remain self-sufficient. That is our lesson.

* * * *

Part 3: As long as there is a need, they’ll work to the end

Ishida: What was life like for you after the earthquake?

Kimizuka: I spent the first two months here in my office, living on my bed.

Ishida: How about food?

Kimizuka: At first it was canned food. Everyone got mouth ulcers. After eating the canned food for over a month on the frontlines, we received more and more reports of mouth ulcers because of vitamin deficiencies and stress. Tens of thousands of people couldn’t use their mouths properly, they couldn’t drink water because they were so sensitive, it caused a serious operational deficiency, and so we distributed vitamin medicine . However, once we replaced the food with boil-in-the-bags, the problem stopped.

Ishida: Why?

While the victims of the disaster have portable toilets, the SDF are going without

While the victims of the disaster have portable toilets, the SDF are going without (Source: Tokyo-bay Funabashi Vivit 2011)

Kimizuka: The boil-in-the-bags have better nutrients in them, but even so, they have no vitamin C and fiber from fresh vegetables (dietary fiber). This causes problems in the toilet. Everything hardens up and won’t come out. We advised that on the frontlines, they exercise self-control over going to the bathroom. They are surrounded by rubble, and they have no idea where there might be dead bodies. They cannot urinate outdoors. Because of this, everyone has to refrain from eating or drinking too much. In the morning when they leave their accommodation, there are no good spots for toilets and so, to some extent, they are unable to use the toilets. Nevertheless, with the constipation, they no longer needed to go to the toilet so much. When those on the front are asked what they want, they ask for vitamin medicine, and also vegetable juice and fiber supplements.

Ishida: It’s not really possible to put that kind of thing in the manuals, is it?

Kimizuka: No, it isn’t.

Ishida: Getting back on their feet 3 months after the disaster, the people of Tohoku are persevering, aren’t they?

Kimizuka: That is especially true for the people on isolated islands and peninsulas. We asked them if they are in trouble or need more supplies., but they reply “No, because of the SDF’s support, we have enough,” The person who said this, one of his sandals was broken and his clothes were muddied. “Did you have a bath?” We ask, but they reply, “I had one three days ago, that’s enough.” They say they have shoes, clothes and other necessary supplies, then add: “We’re fine. We have enough, please go and help people who are worse off,” thinking of others before themselves.  That is Tohoku, but if you were to look at those people, you’d never think that they were doing so well.

Ishida: When will your mission here end?

Kimizuka: For as long as the victim’s have needs. While the local authorities appeal for help, we’ll keep working until the last moment. As long as there is life, here in this place, until the very last need is met, it is our duty to respond.

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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