Features | Security | East Asia

Japan’s Growing Military Confidence

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces performed admirably after last year’s tsunami. Expect a more confident force to play a growing role in disaster response.

By James Hardy for

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.

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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.

After the tsunami, the U.S. Marine Corps deployed its Austal Westpac Express catamaran from Okinawa to the mainland to help with logistics, giving the SDF a close-up view of possible solutions to this problem. “It isn't realistic to have equipment ready to respond to the greatest imaginable crisis,” then-Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said in July, adding that “chartering commercial vessels” was the most likely outcome.  

Speaking in early March, Japanese Defense Ministry officials reiterated that position, adding that better coordination with U.S. assets was also a possibility. What’s clear is that the Maritime SDF won’t get the amphibious ships that would really help it respond quickly to such a crisis, for reasons that are partly financial and partly political: a beach-landing ship would drag the MSDF close to the “offensive capability” abhorred by the Constitution and so would likely prove incendiary. Japan has amphibious ships in the form of the Oosumi class vessels, but these have limited capabilities for their type. Equally, the 22DDH helicopter destroyers under construction won’t be fitted with the well dock and stern doors necessary for amphibious ops – much to the disappointment of at least one senior U.S. Forces Japan officer, who says this was an opportunity missed.

Japan’s hedging on sealift is matched in the air, where it has made the unprecedented decision to buy second-hand kit in the form of surplus U.S. Marine Corps C-130 Hercules. Reported issues with radios will also need to be remedied – sources say that SDF personnel in Tohoku had to communicate via mobile phone and commercial radios – while the Air Self-Defense Forces will have to decide what to do about the squadron of Mitsubishi F-2s that were lost when Matsushima Air Base was swamped.

Ultimately, the most significant outcome of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake for the Defense Ministry may be that HADR has become the SDF’s primary mission, an outcome that supports recent comments by Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen. Ng noted that with the increasing privatization of public transport systems and utilities, the armed forces are becoming the only government agency with the capabilities in reserve to respond to once-in-a-lifetime natural disasters. A major quake in the Tokyo region would certainly serve to further prove his thesis.

As the Defense Ministry’s Motoyuki Nakanishi has noted, the SDF’s response in Tohoku means that next time “people's expectations will be higher.” The corollary is greater expectations within the services too. As one U.S. Forces Japan officer says: “We knew they were competent – but now they are confident too.”

James Hardy is Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly.