Militaries rarely earn their spurs in peacetime, but the Japan Self-Defense Force’s performance in the aftermath of last year’s tsunami and earthquake in Tohoku could be described as a coming of age for a force that has traditionally had a complex relationship with itself and the Japanese public.
A year on from the disaster in northeastern Japan, officials were justifiably proud of what the SDF achieved. “We deployed over 100,000 troops to the disaster area in under a week,” Defense Ministry official Motoyuki Nakanashi said earlier this month. “But because we achieved a lot in response to the earthquake, in the future people’s expectations will be higher. That will be a challenge.”
Regardless, it’s undeniable that the SDF has cemented its role as the lead humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) agency if and when the “big one” eventually hits Tokyo, which according to a recent University of Tokyo study has a 70 percent chance of happening in the next five years.
That the SDF can do this is thanks to policy changes made in the aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake, which exposed the dangers of allowing Japan’s sclerotic and dysfunctional body politic to make life-and-death decisions. After the January 1995 earthquake, the coalition government led by Japan Socialist Party leader Tomiichi Murayama delayed, and then limited, its deployment of SDF troops. Although Murayama repeatedly denied that the failure to mobilize the SDF was due to his understandable (but in the event irrelevant) ideological problems with the SDF's constitutional legality, the ensuing public criticism led to legislation that gives the SDF the autonomy to deploy after a major earthquake without first consulting with local governments. Should Tokyo be hit by a major earthquake, this should at least help mitigate some of the crises the capital’s residents would face, and would allow SDF troops to use their significant resources to act as the first responders they should be allowed to be.
Another key difference between the Hanshin quake and last year’s tsunami was then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s acceptance of U.S. help. In 1995, all the Japanese government would accept from the U.S. military was blankets – a measly little compromise that again suggested hubris or at least indecisiveness on Tokyo’s part. This time around, U.S. Forces Japan acted “almost on autopilot” in moving into a major HADR role, its deputy commander said recently, and commanders quickly placed themselves at the disposal of the Joint Task Force created by the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Northeastern Army: the command post for the SDF’s operations throughout the response.
Although the U.S. contribution was again limited, it was targeted: one of U.S. Forces Japan’s first tasks was to transport SDF troops from Hokkaido to Honshu; it also cleared the deluged Sendai Airport and had military aircraft landing in under a week. It also provided overwatch at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant through U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs and ground monitoring of radiation throughout Fukushima Prefecture – data it fed back to the SDF Joint Task Force and Japanese government.
Continued sensitivity about Tokyo’s inadequate response to the nuclear disaster means that U.S. officials won’t talk about these areas of assistance on the record, but Japanese Defense Ministry officials admit that the shortfall in nuclear monitoring is something they are seeking to compensate for.That means unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, potentially platforms like the Global Hawk, and a general improvement in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets: something that was called for by the 2010 Defense Program Guidelines, but which now has extra impetus. As South Korea recently found out, however, building up an unmanned aerial capability doesn’t come cheap.
Equally, Japan has to work out a way to increase its sealift on a budget. That’s nothing new – sea transport in a contingency is a challenge for all militaries. Britain used liners like the QE2 as troop transports in the 1982 Falklands War, while China’s invasion plans for Taiwan are believed to envisage it using civilian roll-on, roll-off ferries and car carriers.