Japan’s SDF Moment

Japan’s Self-Defense Force is having to step up as never before in the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami.

The last week has produced an inordinate number of analyses and anecdotal stories from Japan on issues ranging from nuclear reactors to fretting diplomats. Minister of the Environment Ryu Matsumoto has been on Japanese TV almost daily attempting to deal with the unfolding events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Japan’s new Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, meanwhile, has been travelling the globe lobbying the international community for assistance.

But despite the attention given to these heavily burdened cabinet portfolios, perhaps the most strained ministry during this crisis has been the Ministry of Defense, led by Toshimi Kitazawa. In what is by far the largest deployment of Japanese forces since World War II, Kitazawa has been overseeing the mobilization of 100,000 soldiers from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to the earthquake and tsunami-affected areas of northern Honshu.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan reacted to the disaster with a swift request for the SDF to take a lead role in the search and rescue efforts, as well as the eventual reconstruction that will follow. The SDF has also played an integral role in attempts to control the fires at the nuclear reactors.

Under the Self Defense Forces Law of 1954, the SDF is required to assist in providing humanitarian relief in the event of a natural disaster if requested by the prefectural governments. This type of role isn’t alien to the SDF. As recently as last year, Japan deployed a small unit of the SDF to help with the search and rescue efforts in Haiti after a massive earthquake all but demolished Port au Prince.

The current mission is the SDF’s moment to demonstrate its professionalism and value to the Japanese public. While its Constitution may limit Japan’s ability to conduct overseas adventures, it’s important to remember that the SDF is one of the best equipped and financed militaries in the world. To put it in perspective, Japan spends more annually on the SDF than the defence budgets of India and Pakistan combined (countries with sophisticated and costly nuclear weapons programmes and the constant threat of international conflict). Japan’s investment in helicopters especially is proving immensely useful in the current crisis, as the SDF scans the devastation from the air to locate survivors and reach remote areas that otherwise would be impossible to reach for weeks.

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Another one of the more remarkable outcomes of the past week is the Kan government’s acceptance, and indeed courtship, of international assistance. Historical Japanese ‘exceptionalism’, such as that demonstrated during the Kobe earthquake in 1995, has been tempered during the most recent crisis, with the Kan government accepting offers from foreign governments of assistance in search and rescue and other relief efforts.

During the Kobe earthquake, Japan graciously dismissed outreach attempts from the international community and indicated it would carry the burden as a nation. But the magnitude of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, coupled with a variety of other factors (including Japan’s recent economic woes), has prompted it to change course and discard some of the hubristic reservations of the past.

The SDF will now be left to work together with relief specialists from the United States, France, Germany, Britain and other nations in an attempt to multiply the force’s search and rescue efforts.