On July 10th, 2011, the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Fuji School of Combined Arms threw open its gates for the annual open day. The main events of the day were the drill ground review and the disaster relief displays. Despite all attempts by the summer sun to burn your correspondent to a crisp, I bring you this report of the day. This event was not the same as the GSDF Fuji Firepower Review, that event will take place on August 28th and is of a completely different scale to this – I will of course be there too. Instead, this event more of a family event, with bus-loads of tourists on Yomiuri and Sankei Bus packages. I am eternally grateful to the people at Sooshin Shoji K.K. for furnishing me with a ticket for the day.

The Disaster Relief Displays

A central part of SDF open day events, so I’m told, is showing off their disaster relief capabilities. There has never been a year in which that capability has been so important.

Standard carry-on kit for GSDF disaster response teams

Standard carry-on kit for GSDF disaster response teams

One long line of stalls was devoted to rescue kit. The standard disaster response kit includes:

  • a helmet, standard issue for combat too;
  • vest to carry equipment – fits over standard-issue uniform;
  • durable rope;
  • pliers;
  • safety goggles;
  • thumb-lock knife;
  • dust mask with disposable filters.

It’s quite heavy equipment, particularly if they need to deploy in summer, but it seems relatively cheap and thus ideal for the task. All the equipment can be stowed on the vest easily.

The pliers and knife caught me off-guard. I expected to at least see a Leatherman-style multitool. I asked the guy behind the stand whether the SDF issued such kit, but I was told that if personnel wanted to take them, they had to buy it for themselves. This is not unusual among militaries: in the British Army, for instance, such private equipment became known as ‘Gucci kit’ after the fashion brand. Still, the knife was sturdy and the pliers heavy-duty, perhaps they were enough in themselves.

GSDF disposable field toilet

GSDF disposable field chemical toilet

Another item on show was the disposable toilet. Now, we’ve all had that awful experience of having to go inside a pungent portapotty that has been baking in the sun – and I doubt many of us would chose to use one if we had the choice. The SDF’s alternative to the commercial plastic monstrosity is one made of cardboard and housed in a tarp tent. It definitely isn’t pretty, but it is a fantastically well thought-up piece of equipment: made of cardboard with a plastic liner for a chemical toilet. The whole thing can be disposed of as a unit.

Attentive readers may remember that access to field toilet facilities was an issue raised by Joint Taskforce Commander Lt. Gen. Eiji Kimizuka in his tell-all interview with the Sankei a few months ago – clearly, that they had these field toilets but still had difficulty giving their people in the field the opportunity to use them suggests a failure of some sort: perhaps these toilets are simply not easy to use in the field and are instead better suited to temporary bases, or perhaps there simply weren’t enough of them to be deployed, or maybe they are simply too difficult to use and transport back to base for disposal. Either way, seeing this interesting solution to the bathroom issue left me wondering what exactly left GSDF troops crossing their legs in the disaster zone.

Fire axe and drill on display

Fire axe and piston-powered drill on display

Next up on display were what we commonly call ‘the jaws of life’: essentially hydraulic tools typically used by the fire service in response to traffic accidents. Having visited a fire station in Japan and examined the tools carried by their engines, the cutter on display seemed, if not exactly the same, pretty damn similar. This cross-service use of equipment was highlighted by Waseda Prof. Asaho Mizushima in the wake of the earthquake to help fuel his argument that the SDF should be replaced by a non-military disaster relief organization.

The cutters were put to use breaking down bicycles into scrap for recycling. The bicycles were presumably all lost or unclaimed property, the kind that you can find in piles in almost any major city in Japan. Given that the cutters are designed to cut through rollcages and engine blocks, it was unsurprising that they made short work of the bicycles, but I guess people tend not to lose their cars all that much and there would be few volunteers willing to give up their motors to soldiers intent on destroying them.

Beside them was a fire-axe type tool with a crowbar handle, and a hand-pumped piston-powered drill with various attachments. The drill was impressive – even the untrained could manage to get the weighted piston to dig into the ground. Presumably this last bit of kit would be used to break slabs of rock and concrete, but I wasn’t able to confirm this.

The Holmatro pneumatic lifting bags can easily hold the weight of two children

The Holmatro pneumatic lifting bags can easily hold the weight of two children

Another device on display were Holmatro Lifting Bags. These clever little kevlar pads can be inflated to lift heavy objects to allow rescue workers to pull trapped victims from under rubble or wreckage. Pneumatic systems are often used for speed rather than strength, but the use of air over hydraulics keeps the weight of the equipment down, essential in a disaster rescue scenario in which vehicles cannot be relied upon.

An inflated bag was on the floor and visitors were invited to stand on it – I did and despite my weight (I could definitely stand to lose a few dozen pounds), the device didn’t budge at all. It felt rock solid, and its rubber exterior gave it considerable traction (like a car footwell mat).

You can see the airbags in use in the promotional video below:

A dummy is given room to breathe with Holmatro lifting bags

A dummy is given room to breathe by the lifting bags

The SDF used a similar set up to demonstrate the bags’ efficacy: a portacabin resting on a dummy with two bags beneath it. The traction of the bags, along with the weight of the structure kept them firmly together and they inflated slowly giving the dummy clear room to breathe. Were it a real human, ignoring the likelihood that the building would have crushed him outright, the space created would have been plenty for not only pulling the victim out, but also to all room to insert a stretcher or brace.

Beside the crushed dummy was a pile of scrap metal and rubble. From the first moment I saw it, I remembered my time in the disaster zone in Tohoku: it looked like the same piles of torn up, twisted beams, bicycles and other household junk. Two machines were on display in this pile of rubble – the first was a fiber-optic camera used to explore cavities for trapped victims. It was simple to use, there were two knobs: one to rotate the camera on a 360º axis, the second was to focus the image. It didn’t take long to find what we were looking for – a stuffed Minnie Mouse toy hidden in the pile. The green glow of the light amplification technology made it easy to pick out, but I couldn’t help but think of how long it would take to search piles like of the size we saw in the north. Presumably they are used after proof of life is obtained, but it isn’t so clear – for example, the second phase of operations in the disaster zone was the location and recovery of dead bodies from the debris: did the SDF search all the piles in this way? It seems hard to believe given all the images of service members carrying sticks and searching culverts. Still, the utility of the device is unquestionable, especially along side the second gadget on display: audio probes.

These metal probes are used to pick up the smallest of sounds from beneath piles of rubble.

These metal probes are used to pick up the smallest of sounds from beneath piles of rubble.

Within the rubble was a radio tuned into a talk show. From outside the rubble, it was impossible to hear, but a long metal probe was inserted into the pile of debris and hooked up to an amplifier and headset – wearing that headset, it was possible to hear not only that the radio was indeed turned on, but also to make out what it was playing in glorious tinny stereo. Beside the rubble, a second probe was inserted into the gravel of the display ground, when the service member manning the display approached the probe and whispered into it, it was relatively easy to make out what he was saying. It goes without saying that these probes would be used to locate survivors either by their active tapping and SOS efforts, or even by their groans of agony. It is after this process, it seems, that the camera would be used to see not only where the victims were, but also to identify any obstacles service members might face in freeing them.

A small field hospital was set up to show off the medical equipment in use, and while most of it was rather standard fare, one item caught my eye: a vacuum splint. I was unaware how quickly this technology had penetrated the emergency medical response market, and it was the first time for me to see a vacuum splint in action. For those who don’t know, a vacuum splint is essentially a bean bag with a pressure valve. By sucking air out of the bag, it becomes rigid around anything it is molded to. It’s an ingenious piece of kit that was made in the US. Although I didn’t take any pictures of it at the time, I’m quite certain that it was Hartwell Medical’s FASPLINT, whose demonstration video I’ve included below.

Nearby, the GSDF’s three types of hazardous environment suits were on display:

Three hazardous environment suits in use with the GSDF in Tohoku disaster zone

Three hazardous environment suits in use with the GSDF in Tohoku disaster zone

On the left is the Mk. 4 Chemical Protection Suit, a hefty 6.6 kg rubber suit renowned for being hell to wear in any form of heat, and the 2 kg Mk. 4 Protective Mask with NATO-standard filters. As a set, they provide full-body coverage and a heavy-duty protective skin to work in, even though they’re not by any means comfortable.

The middle suit is DuPont’s Tyvek Software suit, a radiation and infectious materials protection suit seen in much of the coverage of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi clean-up. It doesn’t appear to be as strong as the Mk. 4 suit, and thus was not used in much of the actual heavy-lifting and swamp-diving stage of the search and rescue efforts.

The final suit (on the right) is the Type ’00 Personal Protection Kit – a protective mask and suit – which replaced the Protective Combat Suit as the SDF’s main MOPP-style suit in 2000. This kit is distributed to every service member and putting it on is their initial response to the detection of hazardous materials in combat, but it seems unlikely that many of the initial responders were carrying these suits in March.

Next to the suits was a display of before and after photographs from the tsunami hit regions, as well as a video summarizing the SDF’s activities there. A map showed the GSDF’s jurisdictions in their response to the crisis (circa April 28th), and gave some numbers to illustrate the size of the deployment – unfortunately, it was laminated and heavily backlit, but here’s the basic details:

Approx. No. of Personnel Units Involved Areas of Operations
Northern Army
10,155 2nd Division Northern coastal Iwate
(e.g. Kuji, Tanohata)
5th Brigade Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture
North-Eastern Army
Joint Taskforce
18,848 9th Division Inland and southern coastal Iwate
(e.g. Miyako, Yamada, Kamaishi, Rikuzentakata)
6th Division Central Miyagi
(e.g. Sendai, Matsushima, Tagajo, Natori)
Eastern Army
2,583 12th Brigade Easter Fukushima
(e.g. Fukushima City, Minami-Soma, Iidate)
Central Readiness Force Evacuation zone around Fukushima Dai-Ichi
Central Army
3,500 10th Division Southern Miyagi and Yamagata border
(e.g. Watari, Yamamoto)
13th Brigade Western Inland Fukushima
(e.g. Fukushima Airport, Aizu)
 14th Brigade Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture
Western Army
4,856 4th Division Northern coastal Miyagi
(e.g. Kesennuma, Minami-Sanriku)

A table in that chart also held the number of Air Self-Defense Force personnel involved at approx. 21,219, Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel at 14,217, making a grand tri-service total of 80,650 personnel. The map depicted the deployment of around the time of the body recovery surge, and it is interesting to note that the number of US servicemen involved was recorded as just 125.


The Base Museum

Given the nature of the event, a celebration of Fuji School’s history, it was no surprise that the base museum was open. The museums on SDF bases help tie together the post-war force with the longer Imperial Army history, something that Prof. Sabine Frühstück discussed at length in her book, Uneasy Warriors. Since reading the book, I had been interested in seeing what was on offer myself and what I found was the rather standard military fare of medals, uniforms, photos and documents. The Imperial Army section of the museum was a little dull for a hardware fan like me, but it was a huge hit among the visitors. For me, the modern wing of the museum was much better: having the usual fare of models and weapons on display.It was nice to see some of the light arms up-close, and even more interesting to see that Daikin Industries, most famous for its air-conditioners, also produce tank cannon rounds.

Also, there was this:

Painting of the Flying Forward Observation System

Painting of the Flying Forward Observation System

This is the GSDF’s tactical UAV platform known as the Flying Forward Observation System (FFOS), based on Fuji’s RPH-2 agricultural system. Used as a forward observation platform for medium-range field artillery, it has since been upgraded into the Flying Forward Reconnaissance System (FFRS). The system wasn’t on show on the day, but I’m holding out hope that I’ll see one in the flesh at the Fuji Firepower Review next weekend.

Vehicles Close-up

Finally, I had a chance to see some of more vehicles close-up, so I’ll leave you with a slideshow of these. Next weekend (August 28th), I’ll be attending the largest GSDF show, Fuji Firepower Review 2011 if the weather holds out. Expect coverage of the event sometime in September.

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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