Katsumata: Following the unprecedented disaster on March 11, U.S. forces promptly announced their full support and collaborated with the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). To enable smooth action, BCAT was for the first time ever set up within the Ministry of Defense as well as in disaster-hit Sendai.
This organization is essentially BCAT that would be set up in times of an armed attack against Japan or in emergency situations in neighboring regions in order to allow the fluid communication between the militaries of the two countries. It is defined in the Guidelines on U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation drafted in 1997, but had never before been set up. Based on these guidelines, BCAT was established in response to the disaster.
BCAT took a central role in running Operation Tomodachi, which people say has strengthened the U.S.-Japan alliance. But I have heard through media reports that, since it was the first real collaboration, it faced confusion in its initial stages. We hope to evaluate this collaboration in order to pass down the valuable experience for use in future occurrences.
Dr. Eldridge acted as one of the U.S. liaison offices at BCAT established in Sendai. Tell us first what the situation was in the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa when the quake hit.
Japan-U.S. service members work
together to clean away rubble at the
Minato Elementary School in
Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture.
ALL PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JSDF
Eldridge: I was at Camp Foster in Okinawa on the day of the earthquake. Hearing the news of the quake, we set up a crisis management office shortly after 3 p.m. and were examining potential effects on the mainland and Okinawa.
Even in the initial media reports, we knew clearly from the tsunami footage that the magnitude of this crisis was something that Japan could not handle on its own. We were certain that we would receive some form of request to send aid, and the Marines and U.S. forces went into around-the-clock operation. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31MEU), which is usually stationed in Okinawa and is a key unit here, happened to be in Southeast Asia training for emergency relief operations, so they were called them back and we prepared our helicopters and aircraft to leave Futenma any time from the next day. We were prepared to meet any form of relief request.
Katsumata: It was also lucky that the U.S. Navy just happened to be heading to a joint maneuver with South Korea and was near Japan. The nuclear aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan decided to head to Japan and was off the coast of Sanriku on the 13th. U.S. forces were quick to react.
Yet BCAT was set up on the 15th. Mr. Hiroe assumed responsibility on the Japan side to discuss matters with the U.S. side. How did the collaborations go in BCAT’s initial stages?
© Chuo Koron Shinsha
Hiroe: The U.S. forces and JSDF had never conducted joint training based on a disaster relief operation scenario. Moreover, it was the first time that a BCAT had ever actually been established. Therefore, there were no detailed bilateral plans at our disposal when we arrived at Camp Sendai. There was no manual on how to cooperate or coordinate; nor was there a designated office to do the actual coordination. Accordingly, my staff and I had to create everything from scratch. We had to decide everything from the time schedule to meet with our American partners to the work plans of the 31MEU and those of our own. So in a sense, it was only natural that it look a little time, in the initial post-disaster stage, to get to know each other and figure things out.
Eldridge: I and some dozen members of the Marines and the Forward Command Element of U.S. Forces, Japan arrived in Sendai on the 14th, the day before BCAT was established. The situation was hardly smooth at first, but it was not “confused” either. I recall that it was around the 18th when I felt assured that coordination between the JSDF and U.S. Forces had become extremely smooth and really took off.
Katsumata: The top-priority missions as of the 15th were (1) Search for missing people and (2) Supply water, food and provisions – or at least they should have been. The U.S. Navy’s nuclear aircraft carrier was already off the Sanriku coast and Air Force aircraft were there as well. Are you saying that while every second counted amid this emergency you were unable to run smooth coordination until the 18th?
Hiroe: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the BCAT was “unable to run smoothly.” But yes, I admit there were some challenges. Members of the U.S. Forces frequently asked us, “What do you want us to do? Where do you want us to go? Tell us specifically what we can do to help?” The U.S. military was eager to offer their assistance, but we were unable to meet their enthusiasm in a timely fashion. This was extremely painful for us. Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami, the JSDF established, at its Northeastern Army Headquarters in Sendai, the first ever Joint Task Force Command to jointly operate its Army, Navy, and Air Forces to quickly meet the needs of the victims in the disaster hit areas. However, even the Joint Task Force (JTF), at the very initial stage of the post-disaster, faced tremendous challenges in grasping the needs and requirements of the victims. The sheer scale and scope of the disaster were unprecedented. And thus, even for the JSDF, it was a challenge, to immediately map out a detailed deployment plan in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. I believe that it was around March 20 – when JTF was able to grasp all the needs and requirements of the disaster-hit areas, and completed putting into place a system by which to transport provisions effectively – that we were able to operate with our U.S. partners in a smooth and coordinated manner.
Japan-U.S. service members deliver relief aid.
The Operation included fuel shipment to the disaster areas.
Katsumata: Were there any times when the U.S. forces expressed their frustration or voiced displeasure about such responses by the JSDF?
Eldridge: Never. That is because we were in the position of assisting Japan. Japan gives the orders and the United States meets those requests, so there was never a time when we had to quarrel.
But there were some problems. First, it took time for the Japan side to gather information from all the units and organizations with their diverse intentions, organize them and share them with us. We on the U.S. side could offer specific cooperation only when such information was organized and shared.
Another issue I must point out was that Japan and the United States did not have free discussions at the initial stage. Even in a situation where we were working together to think about what we can do at this stage and what is necessary, the Japanese side would talk based on a preconceived scenario of sorts, which eliminated any opportunities for the two sides to discuss and come up with new possibilities. I believe it was two or three days later when we were finally able to have frank discussions.
And although we held two meetings a day in the morning and at night, the United States was unable to get the overall picture of Japan’s relief plan. Indicating some level of vision instead of just plans and goals for the next few days would have made joint operations work smoothly. This was another issue.
Another obstacle to smooth joint operations was that the JSDF initially did not have an accurate understanding of the capabilities of the U.S. forces.
Servicemen hand out special gifts to children in the Minato Elementary School shelter.
Children receive bags of friendship at the Minato Elementary School shelter.
Hiroe: As mentioned by Dr. Eldridge, we lacked full understanding of the capabilities of the U.S. forces. This was a lesson that needed learning. For instance, the Marine Expeditionary Unit (31MEU) in Okinawa, which I hope to elaborate on later, literally saved an island in Kesennuma called Oshima that had fallen into isolation due to the tsunami. The Japanese side, at the time, did not know the volume nor the size of the equipment and manpower the Marines had at their disposal at the time, which was necessary to remove the debris on Oshima. We did have a certain amount of knowledge of each other’s strengths through the numerous joint training exercises that we have conducted over the years. Yet, I must confess, we lacked knowledge, in terms of U.S. capabilities based on a disaster relief scenario. This experience only reminded me of the critical importance of continued exchange of information between our two countries about our capabilities and the need for joint training and exercises based on various future scenarios.
Katsumata: I would like to ask about the Oshima rescue that you just mentioned. I had heard that the 31MEU, a skilled Marine unit, arrived off the Akita coast on the 18th but was frustrated because the Japanese side was not clear with its requests. The Oshima operation began on April 1. Tell me what went on during this time.
Hiroe: Mobilizing the 31MEU was the most challenging operation that we undertook together. On March 16, one day following the set-up of the BCAT, I was given orders to identify the course of action for the 31MEU. The Joint Staff Office in Tokyo had also ordered me to develop a plan and to request that plan to the U.S. side as soon as possible, as this was an important operation that concerned the Japan-U.S. Alliance. I recall feeling quite rushed. That was when we received information that a breakwater at the entrance to the Port of Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture had collapsed to a point of complete destruction and required immediate recovery. We quickly followed up on this information and together with the U.S. Marines that were already with us at Camp Sendai traveled to Ofunato to observe the site on March 20. However, by the time we got there, the debris was already removed. This was a huge disappointment. JTF then received a request from the Kesennuma City Hall to assist in the recovery of Oshima. According to Kesennuma City, the port had been destroyed and the island, Oshima, was completely isolated and could not receive provisions. As soon as I received this information, I knew that this was a job that called for the 31MEU’s special skills.
Eldridge: While the operation plan was yet to be determined, the 31MEU’s 2,200 members were eager to help Japan at any time. That was when the Oshima recovery information came in.
The Oshima mission was perfect for the Marines. They are a rapid reaction force that is often the first to respond to many challenges in the region. Oshima’s port was devastated and the island isolated. The Marines utilize Landing Craft Utility (LCU) that dispatch from the rear hatch of the Navy’s amphibious assault ship the USS Essex and reached Oshima. The operation suited the Marines, who can operate by air, land and sea, and the 31MEU was proud and privileged to have done a perfect job.
Katsumata: What was a memorable moment in the Oshima operation?
Eldridge: I could never forget the islanders rejoicing in tears when the Marines riding the Navy LCU landed on the island with provisions and machinery. Another memorable moment was on April 6, when the islanders saw off the 31MEU as they were leaving the island after completing their operation. The scene of people waving Japan and U.S. flags and shouting arigato was touching beyond words.
Hiroe: I was amazed and impressed by the strength and delicate work of the 31MEU. I must admit, I had held the impression that the Marines were rough and bold because of their expected role as the first responders. But their work to which I had the privilege of joining together at Oshima was nothing close to this image. The Marines would first remove things such as photo albums or wallets that have sentimental value to the disaster hit population out of the debris by hand, one by one, before they clawed in with heavy machinery.
It was extremely delicate work, yet they completed their daily work, on schedule, precisely as they said they would. The 31MEU left completing their entire work schedule on April 6, as initially planned. The 31MEU completely overturned the impression I had of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Katsumata: Did the Japanese side give the direction to remove valued items such as photo albums before using machinery?
Hiroe: At the BCAT, we did ask that they take into consideration Japanese sentiments so as to mitigate impact on the victims of the disaster hit population. That request, I understand, was passed down from the commander to each individual troop in precise directions, and was faithfully observed. A military unit obviously acts under command, but that delicate work was extremely impressive.
Katsumata: Were there any events that struck you as different from JSDF operations?
Hiroe: The day before the Oshima operation started, I had the opportunity to watch a strategy meeting on board the USS Essex. It was conducted in a very disciplined and orderly manner – their method of evaluating strategy from the larger framework to details and the procedure of assigning experts for each function to decide on logistics and communications were no different from those of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF).
What amazed me, though, was that the U.S. Navy and Marines were conducting the meeting together, which established the debris removal operation of Oshima as an amphibious operation. This was something not seen within the Japan Self-Defense Forces, whereby the GSDF would normally operate on its own.
I had thought that the focus of the Oshima operation was solely on removing debris, but their strategy began from talks on which direction the Essex-based LCU would enter and on matching the moment of entry to high tide. This was a great learning experience.
Personnel of the U.S. and Japan
armed forces work with high school
students and volunteers to clean the
Ishinomaki Technical High School in Ishinomaki.
Katsumata: Would you say that this was an opportunity to recognize the importance of the GSDF collaborating with the Navy?
Hiroe: That’s exactly what it was. The Marines were under the Navy’s command while onboard the Essex, and they even operated under the Navy’s command for a while after reaching ashore. Having observed such command and control structure, I made me think that perhaps the GSDF should consider working together with the U.S. Navy on a more regular basis to prepare ourselves for similar and/or different types of scenarios in the future.
I actually learned in the field the difficulties of working in unexpected situations such as this one with eyes on multiple organizations of both nations. The U.S. side had suggested boarding a GSDF officer on the Essex for communication purposes, to which we responded by sending three officers. The three were able to collaborate with the U.S. Navy and the Marines. This was innovative for the GSDF and we recognized the need for regular collaboration with the Navy. It was an extremely meaningful lesson for us.
Katsumata: The Oshima operation mostly ended on April 6, but the U.S. forces remained until late-April, running operations such as Operation Soul Train that removed railroad and railway station debris. A peak figure of approximately 18,000 U.S. troops participated during this time, with dispatch of some 15 ships and 140 aircraft. Did Operation Tomodachi bring about any change in the relationship between the JSDF and U.S. forces?
Eldridge: Colonel Hiroe and I, who assumed the coordination roles, knew each other from before, which I think was one factor in the success of the coordination process this time around. Developing such relationships is important.
Through these series of operations, other members were also able to work together in a real world situation instead of in meetings, and were able to closely observe each other’s capabilities. As Colonel Hiroe has pointed out, it was valuable that a GSDF member boarded the Essex as a liaison officer to do coordination work and saw on site U.S. Navy and Marines working together.
I also feel that the JSDF recognized the importance of joint operations seen among U.S. forces between the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. This is significant for the Marines as well, who are the counterparts of the GSDF, because we are always preaching to the SDF about the importance of jointness in our many meetings and interactions, and now they were able to see it for real.
I am also sure that through this joint effort in facing up to an unprecedented calamity, the U.S. forces and the JSDF operated together and saw the potential of working in other world situations.
Katsumata: How was it for the GSDF?
Hiroe: It has undoubtedly strengthened the trust between us. The Marines were the central force in relief operations until early April when the Oshima operation ended, but from then on, the U.S. Army took over as the central force. As for the GSDF, we were able to develop a good relationship of trust with both the Forces, and through the relief operation solidified our confidence in working together as Allies.
Eldridge: I think that we should consider using BCAT more flexibly in order to develop relationships among organizations of both nations and to strengthen the alliance. Yet I also believe that as much as we should strengthen personal relationships, we must develop complementary systems.
I also have to add that each of the two nations should reflect back on this joint operation and share their conclusions with each other. Accumulating such efforts would lead to future benefits.
Katsumata: When responding to a natural disaster within the country, the JSDF had always coordinated with the local autonomies. On this occasion, the U.S. forces joined in this process and were able to achieve results.
While the Great East Japan Earthquake is said to occur once in a thousand years, we still face the risk of a potentially huge earthquake caused by simultaneous motion of the Tokai, Tonankai and Nakai plates, or one centered directly under Tokyo. Should these come, tough relief operations would be demanded of the JSDF, like the one we just had. In the United States, large earthquakes occur frequently on the West Coast. It is highly possible that should the United States suffer damage, the JSDF would go to help.
Then should we not sign an agreement of sorts on the two nations helping each other in times of natural disaster? Local autonomies, the JSDF and the U.S. forces working according to the framework of the agreement and training for relief operations regularly should prove to be good preparation.
Eldridge: This is my personal opinion, but having experienced the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and seen the recovery process onsite, I felt that the two nations should have some form of preparatory measures ahead of time, and in 2006 I proposed a U.S.-Japan Mutual Assistance Agreement in Large Scale National Disasters when I was still in academia. In it, I suggested among other things, the U.S. Military in Japan would participate in drills throughout the country. If we could develop an agreement between the two nations and some framework for drills, the effort could ideally lead to developing a future system that could respond to natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia and South Korean participations.
Katsumata: What does the GSDF think about this? Would it lead to smoother operations if the GSDF considered the U.S. forces another hand in relief operations and trained together?
Hiroe: Should another major disaster like this one were to occur, we would most likely, again, look towards our Tomodachi, the U.S. forces, for assistance. This means that we need to learn from our experiences and to prepare ourselves to be able to respond even more effectively next time. I hate to reiterate, but when we set up the BCAT in Sendai, we did not have a plan nor a pre-agreed manual or anything; we had to find our way through our coordination process. We spent more time than necessary on the preliminary stages. It is common knowledge that life or death of a victim depends on the first 72 hours after the disaster. In relief operations, every second counts. If we lose time, we definitely lose lives.
Eldridge: “The more you sweat now, the less you bleed later.” This is a saying used in battle that tells of good preparation; and it applies to natural disasters as well. If we had prepared for disaster operations in Japan together prior to this earthquake, we could have come to the aid of several hundred thousand victims much faster.
Hiroe: Of any operation, 90% is preparation, and we must have everything prepared on a regular basis. Preparation includes having a plan drafted and establishing procedures, guidelines, and rules. I think such preparation allows for rapid operations in times of emergency.
Regarding the cooperation system in the Asia-Pacific region that Dr. Eldridge refers to, I’ve had conversations on the subjects with counterparts of the national armies in the region. I believe the matter has already been taken up the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum, a multinational framework that discusses security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Accordingly, I am hopeful in seeing some positive developments on this matter the near future.
Katsumata: Lastly, what are your feelings about having been involved in Operation Tomodachi?
Eldridge: I have lived half of my life here in Japan, so I can say with all confidence that the Japanese are a people who usually recover quickly. But when an unprecedented disaster such as this one hits, any nation, even Japan will have a hard time physically and psychologically recovering on its own.
I believe Operation Tomodachi offered many people hope that they can recover.
Katsumata: Were there any changes in the psychology of the Marine troops before and after the operation?
Eldridge: The Marines and officers who were involved in the operation are extremely honored to have participated.
Just the other day, there was a ceremony at the Marine Corps’ Camp Fuji to replace commanders. The commander, who was also involved in Operation Tomodachi, was departing Camp Fuji and gave a final 15-minute speech, of which half was about Operation Tomodachi and especially the reopening of Sendai Airport. This commander spoke emotionally of how much Operation Tomodachi meant to his life, and even said that he “had joined the Marines to do such work.”
We are neighbors here in Japan, and the Marines feel joy and pride beyond words on having come to the aid of Japan, which is home to so many of their friends. We are very happy as well to see our relationship with Oshima Island continue.
Music helped to nurse victims’ souls,
here at Aoba Junior High School in Ishinomaki.
Katsumata: I think a reason for this emotional uplift lies in the fact that relations between the U.S. military bases and their surrounding regions were not so good in recent years, as seen in the Futenma issue in Okinawa. From my position knowing the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, I feel mixed emotions.
Hiroe: Through this operation, I was deeply touched by the compassion demonstrated by the members of the U.S. Forces. What the members of the U.S. Forces – from its officers and troops on site – conveyed to us can be summarized in three phrases:
We came here to help Japan.
Tell me whatever you want.
Because we are your friends.
At the BCAT, I felt their strong desire and passion to help the people of Japan, their Tomodachi, friend. The JSDF, including, of course, myself, is determined to further strengthening our relationship with the U.S. Forces from the general officers level to the field level. I sincerely hope that the Japanese people will sense the warm and kind feelings of the U.S. Marine Corps and that of the U.S. Forces, and see them as our true friends.
Servicemen hold up a “thank you” flag
received having completed removal of
debris at the Okaido Elementary School in Ishinomaki.
Note: This discussion meeting was held on Jul. 15 by Chuo Koron Shinsha.
Translated from “Tomodachi Sakusen no butaiura – Beigun, Jieitai no omowaku ga kousa shita nichibei chosasho,” Chuokoron, September 2011, pp. 60-68. (Courtesy of Chuo Koron Shinsha) [September 2011]