Tohoku in My Memory: Recollections on Operation Tomodachi



It’s seven years since the 3/11 Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami that killed over 18,000 people. It left an impression on anyone who was in Japan at the time.


I was living in Tokyo then. The day after the earthquake I was asked to return to active duty with the United States Marines to assist in the relief effort that came to be known as Operation Tomodachi.


After four days or so in the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) operations center in Ichigaya, Tokyo, I flew to Sendai to serve as head of the American half of the Bilateral Coordination Cell, at the “front end” nearest the disaster area, to help organize US military support for the JSDF.


One tends to recall such experiences in pieces. What follows are some vignettes and observations from my narrow perspective, still fixed in memory, and perhaps of interest to readers.


‘The Second Reactor Just Exploded’


My first stop was the US Air Force’s Yokota Air Base, where the overall US effort was being organized. While we were being briefed on the situation, an officer came over and said, “The second reactor [in Fukushima] just exploded.” On the whole I’d rather have been in Philadelphia, but when faced with something so dramatic, one acts as though it happens every day.


Military headquarters of the type at Yokota aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Eventually there were around 18 American generals and admirals at the base—all angling for a piece of the action. That was probably 17 too many. I was glad to escape and work the 12-hour night shift, heading the US team in the basement of the JSDF Ichigaya operations center.


The head of the day shift, a US Army reserve officer, was one example often seen during Operation Tomodachi of the US side having the right people where they needed to be. He’d grown up in Japan and knew all the JSDF top commanders. Indeed, he was most happy his two children were coming back to Japan (while many others were trying to get out of town), so they could go up north and help out.


Make no mistake, the Americans wanted to help. But the disaster response was done “on the fly” since little, if any, prior planning or practice was done for a US-Japan bilateral disaster response. That’s hard to imagine, given that US forces have been in Japan since 1945. The US Navy and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) were the exception, so they set out to sea and did what they could. But too often it appeared that American and Japanese forces barely knew each other.


The JSDF deserves most of the credit for quickly putting together the scheme for coordinating the bilateral US-Japan effort.


Sacrifice and Leadership


I will share a couple other recollections from the Ichigaya operations center.


After days of the Kan administration dithering, and TEPCO (the company operating the Fukushima nuclear plant) officials sounding incoherent about the situation with the Fukushima nuclear reactors, a sense of panic began to spread nationwide.


It is little known how the JSDF leadership took charge to organize the effort to deal with the Fukushima reactors. Their effort included both a Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) helicopter dropping buckets of water on the reactors, and a larger team sent in to try and “cool down” the reactors.


Science-wise this may have had little effect, but the national panic seemed to subside once it appeared that somebody was in charge and had a plan. That was thanks to the JSDF leadership—not Prime Minister Naoto Kan or his administration. I left Ichigaya thinking General Ryoichi Oriki, the JSDF chief of staff, would have made a good prime minister.


Before the Fukushima assault, the JSDF asked to borrow as many NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) protective suits as we, the US side, could provide. The USS George Washington emptied out its stores and flew them to the staging area. The Navy noted that the NBC suits don’t work against Fukushima-type radiation. The Japanese response was, “We know.” The JSDF expected everyone heading to Fukushima to die. The JSDF went and did their duty. I wish more Japanese had seen it.


Despite the urgent circumstances, there were still concerns about violating legal restraints on the ability of US forces to get involved.


One night at Ichigaya, the US Navy hospital at Yokosuka called, asking permission to dispatch two helicopters to a Japanese hospital in the affected area. The hospital director had asked a Navy doctor friend for baby formula and other necessities that were running short. The Navy loaded up two helicopters and had them on the launch pad with rotors turning—awaiting permission, since it was prohibited for a US military helicopter to land at a Japanese civilian hospital.


The two Ministry of Defense lawyers in the operations center must have both been in the bathroom. So, our answer was, “Send them.” That still feels good.


Restoring Sendai Airport


Moving to Sendai.


For the first and likely last time in my life, a plane came to take just me alone somewhere. The C-12 pilot described the Sendai airport as a scene that looked like a giant had stomped around, spread a layer of mud on everything, and then crushed cars and thrown them all over, many of them with somebody still inside.


It was gray and cold on arrival and the scene seemed apocalyptic—just like the pilot had described it.


Restoring Sendai airport after Japanese authorities had written it off was maybe the major US contribution to Operation Tomodachi. It was useful operationally, but also psychologically, showing recovery was possible for the entire disaster-hit region.


Too little recognition was given to Marine Colonel Craig Kozeniesky from Camp Fuji, west of Tokyo, who, on his own initiative, got his Marines together and sent a convoy north. As with anything different, there was inertia on the Japanese side, and plenty of reasons and regulations against it. Another Marine, the Deputy Commander at USFJ,  helped provide cover, and Task Force Fuji moved north.


It was the Camp Fuji Marines who provided most of the manpower and labor for the Sendai airport cleanup. They were indispensable. One was inclined to trade a couple of Yokota generals for another dozen Marine lance corporals to move mud and debris.


And a USAF airfield operations team that headed to Sendai immediately were among the other unsung heroes. They were unflappable and apparently immune to cold. After a few minutes with them you knew something good was going to happen. Add in Japanese civilian airport workers and an energetic GSDF colonel, and it is no surprise that Sendai airport was handling commercial flights about a month after the tsunami.


JSDF Did 99% of the Work


The damage in Tohoku was as it appeared on television. But it wasn’t widely reported that, while the Japanese Navy got to Tohoku within a matter of hours, it lacked the ability to conduct disaster relief operations from the sea.  


Being unable to conduct amphibious operations combining ground, sea, and air capabilities, and lacking necessary equipment, the MSDF task force was unable to get into the affected areas to save lives in the first crucial 24-48 hours. Many people died as a result. That was the price of “amphibious” being a taboo word in Japanese political and media circles.


Civilian volunteers and foreign assistance got a lot of press coverage, but the JSDF did 99% of the work. Civilians and foreign assistance were helpful, not in the least as a political and psychological gesture of support, but the Japanese military and the GSDF in particular deserve most of the credit.


Public respect for the JSDF increased notably during Operation Tomodachi. But they took a pay cut, along with all other government employees, a few months afterward. Some thanks.


One had to see the GSDF and MSDF in operation to fully appreciate their contribution, removing debris, and even more so, searching for bodies. Handling two corpses is enough. Handling 16,000 is a lot more than enough. They didn’t complain and showed great dignity.


One lasting image of the JSDF doing its duty was two young female GSDF enlisted soldiers stoically monitoring radios right by the entrance to the Bilateral Coordination Cell building. It was freezing cold inside since the door was mostly open. One is inclined to think the jieikan (JSDF personnel) are the most impressive of all Japanese.


Just as the Americans had the right people in the right places, the Japanese did too. General Eiji Kimizuka, the Northeastern Army commander who headed up the disaster relief, was the right guy for the job.


In a curious twist, while visiting the USS Essex, General Kimizuka got fogged in and had to stay overnight. While there, he experienced an amphibious ship with Marines and Navy personnel planning together, something unheard of in the JSDF. Later, when he became the GSDF chief of staff, he prioritized creating an amphibious capability, essential for disaster relief and defending Japan. I’ve always wondered where that fog came from.


Rights Guys at the Right Place


In dealing with the JSDF in Sendai, the lack of familiarity between Marines and JSDF was apparent in an Abbot and Costello sort of exchange, with the Americans asking, “What do you need?” and the Japanese responding, “What do you have?” This eventually worked itself out, owing to the operations officer for the Marines putting things in order. A Marine logistics officer able to conjure up resources like a genie was very helpful.


The Marine/Army team in Sendai was blessed with quite a few of the “right guys.”  The number-two, a big CH-53 pilot from Texas, had unlimited patience, and the task force commander was just right for a delicate role interfacing with the Japanese.


It also helped that the Marines’ civilian advisor from Okinawa appeared to know everybody, including General Kimizuka and politicians, and was even able to produce forklifts out of thin air—vital for airfield operations. It can be tricky to join an operation already in progress, as I was doing, but on hearing a Marine friend studying at the Japanese Command and Staff College had wangled his way to Sendai, I reckoned my chances of success increased by 100%.


The view from the front end is always a little different. It took a while for US leaders at Yokota to realize that Japan is a first-world country and that our role was to provide whatever support they requested, rather than to have the Americans take the lead. As for the Fukushima nuclear trouble, it seemed like the US embassy’s objective was to scare the daylights out of everybody in Japan. We were less concerned in Sendai.


At the evacuation sites one noted the calm as people lined up for a couple onigiri (rice balls) and said “thank you” afterward. It was not exactly like post-hurricane Katrina refugees damning President Bush for not having cable television in their FEMA trailers. Humans may be humans, but the Japanese version sometimes seems different.


One evacuation site rejected our offer of supplies since there would not have been enough to share among everybody there. Only in Japan. But had it gone on another three weeks, especially with most of the sites being self-organized, I had the feeling that even Japanese would have reached their limits.


Besides the Sendai airport, the Americans provided water and fuel and cleaned debris and mud from several schools. But one of the outsized contributions was producing portable showers and shower tents, courtesy of the US Army. People seemed cheerier once the showers appeared—along with a few junior Marines who lived in the cold at the evacuation sites to operate them.


US military bands providing concerts at the evacuation sites was one of several things the Japanese requested that we wouldn’t have thought of.


Remember These People


And there was Oshima Island. It had been cut off and the JSDF wasn’t able to provide full assistance. This is where the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) finally got into action and showed what an amphibious capability can do. This was not lost on some of the JSDF reformers who watched the operation.  


The MEU did good work, though it was ordered to pull out sooner than it should have. If they had taken a vote of the Marines and Sailors, it would have been 1,000 to 0 in favor of sticking around longer. This was a baffling decision by US military leadership, as was the decision to send US Air Force dependents back to America. At least it was puzzling from my perspective in Sendai. We weren’t going anywhere.


Finally, most people who have lived for a while and been around the world a bit have seen some misery. But the Tohoku business remains fixed in memory. Perhaps I knew the Japanese too well from two decades of living in Japan.


I have many individual memories of Operation Tomodachi. But I’ve not been able to erase a mental image of terrified young children watching a black wall of water and debris bearing down upon their world. When Okinawans whine about burdens, they might consider that “black wall” of the tsunami as it is a real burden.


I read an account after I went home of a young Japanese couple putting their young daughter’s favorite dress out each day with a note to the effect, “Beautiful Hana-chan, here is your favorite dress. Please come home.”


Remember these people lost on 3/11 and afterwards, and God bless and care for every one of them.


Like most of the Marines and other Americans, I consider myself fortunate to have helped out. We did everything we could. And next time, we will do better.  


Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired United States Marine Officer. He was the head of the US part of the Bilateral Coordination Cell in Sendai after the 3/11 Tohoku disaster. He spent a few days in the basement of Ichigaya in the Operations Center as the American head of the night shift after the disaster.



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