A direct proposition to the “long-term” Abe administration Crisis leadership: Nankai Trough, sub-Tokyo earthquake… Voicing the limits to the Self-Defense Forces out loud - Discuss Japan
Discuss Japan > Back Number > No.19 > A direct proposition to the “long-term” Abe administration Crisis leadership: Nankai Trough, sub-Tokyo earthquake… Voicing the limits to the Self-Defense Forces out loud
Discussions, Politics, No.19  Mar. 25, 2014

A direct proposition to the “long-term” Abe administration Crisis leadership: Nankai Trough, sub-Tokyo earthquake… Voicing the limits to the Self-Defense Forces out loud


They cannot do what they did after the Great East Japan Earthquake for all earthquakes. State risks require preparations on the part of autonomies and citizens.

ORIKI Ryoichi Former Chief of Staff, Joint Staff
ORIKI Ryoichi

Former Chief of Staff, Joint Staff

Funabashi Yoichi has interviewed a number of people for this magazine (Bungeishunju) on the topic of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident and crisis leadership – writer Hando Kazutoshi (June 2013), former Chief of Fukushima No.2 Nuclear Power Plant Masuda Takahiro (August 2013), and Charles Casto of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (October 2013). On this occasion, he meets former Joint Staff’s Chief of Staff Oriki Ryoichi, who was head of the army, naval and air forces at the time as the leader of the Self-Defense Forces’ uniformed personnel, to discuss the role of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in this incident and leadership as its former commander.

FUNABASHI Yoichi Journalist


Funabashi: In the wake of 3-11, the SDF was forced to operate on the front lines of the nuclear plant accident, in addition to rescuing people from the earthquake and tsunami. Obviously, the SDF did not assume that operations within a nuclear plant would be an essential mission, did it?

Oriki: Our conventional nuclear disaster measures assumed the 1999 JCO critical accident at Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture. So while the SDF was ready to evacuate citizens and monitor radiation measurements, we had to gradually add additional tasks as required. At the Fukushima Daiichi Plant site, we received a Nuclear Disaster Dispatch Order on the day of the earthquake, and I responded by commanding a troop in Tohoku to station and operate a special Nuclear Biological Chemical Weapon Defense Unit.

The SDF does have experts on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but their knowledge is in protecting the lives of units and troops; we have no experts on nuclear power plants. And when it is the reactor itself that is in danger, there are limits as to how far we can go on to the site or monitor radiation. I’m sure that the troops who went to the site felt the real fear of a nuclear plant accident for the first time while watching the figures on the Geiger counter. When Reactor 3 exploded, debris ripped through the windshield of an SDF combat vehicle and injured four team members.

Funabashi: That tank accident was so close to being a fatal one. If it had resulted in casualties, it would have had a huge impact on the subsequent operations of the SDF.

Oriki: The front part of the combat vehicle was crushed. It was really very close. If anything terrible had happened, not only would it have affected the operations of the SDF, it would have had psychological effects on the TEPCO workers who were searching for answers at the pitch-dark site. The unfortunate accident and each and every experience there heightened SDF’s knowledge of radiation, so we must pass this down as a lesson.

Funabashi: The situation was one of extreme confusion from the time it occurred, and I noticed while watching the visuals of TEPCO’s TV conference that the real obstacles at the plant site were in fact some really small things. For example, the government’s decision to set a 20-kilometer evacuation radius made it difficult for the people at the plant to go and buy anything. They would ask for items like batteries, but that distance got in the way. Couldn’t the SDF have offered such logistical support at Fukushima Daiichi?

Oriki: What the SDF needed to do at that point was save lives, run search operations and evacuate residents. I believed that those were the aspects I needed to prioritize. Looking back now, logistical support at the plant may have indeed been necessary, but TEPCO, including its headquarters, should have set up the logistical operations at the farthest point to which they could possibly go. Logistical support can be undertaken wearing a simple protective suit, so it didn’t necessarily have to be the SDF.

Funabashi: You’re absolutely right. I asked power industry experts in the United States, and they said that at the Three Mile Island accident, some of the experts from power companies nationwide formed a team and handled the situation together. In Japan, all nine of the other power companies in Japan except Okinawa Electric Power own nuclear power plants, but they were unable to set up a support system for Fukushima. With the only support offered within TEPCO being from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the site was completely alone. The U.S. expert I talked to wondered why this was the case.

In that sense, I had the impression that the SDF was never confused and had run its operations smoothly. One of the factors behind the success of the SDF operations in this disaster was the strong relationship between you and Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa.

Oriki: It was indeed significant that Minister Kitazawa and I were able to communicate so well. Efficient communication in such a state of crisis was a crucial factor.

Funabashi: Collaboration with the U.S. forces was also important. As for Operation Tomodachi, we still remember how much the U.S. did for the crisis in Japan. But even the U.S. forces had some first-time issues in handling the nuclear plant accident. The Navy in particular had a strong fear of radiation and dealt with the matter on the basis of extremely strict rules. If a nuclear aircraft carrier or submarine had incurred damage, it would have affected U.S. global strategy as well as harming the U.S.-Japan alliance. But their application of their own rules caused a serious issue in terms of managing the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Oriki: Each nation has its own standards and cultures, so we must accept the differences. They have the responsibility to protect the lives of U.S. citizens. But when it comes to the practical issue of evacuation, it has a psychological impact on the Japanese people as well as a political impact, so the nations need to work it out at the state level.

Funabashi: At the same time, I felt that the members of the SDF appeared to have been moved by an excessive fear of radiation, particularly in the initial stages. Some residents said of the SDF’s too-early response, “The SDF was the first to run away.”

Oriki: Amid the confusion of the events, we were not quite clear on the roles of the SDF troops at that time. We evacuated temporarily to protect the unit, which may have led to the perception that the SDF ran away.

Funabashi: On March 22, you sent one of your staff, Joint Staff Operations Director Hironaka Masayuki, to the U.S. Pacific Command Joint Support Force (JSF) at the U.S. Military Yokota Base. There, he delivered your message to Commander of U.S. Forces Japan Lieutenant General Burton Field and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen: “The Self-Defense Forces will handle the matter with full responsibility for the nation of Japan. We are the last line of defense.”

Oriki: I didn’t send him because there were major concerns. I had already met with Commander Walsh of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander-in-Chief Willard of the U.S. Pacific Command at Ichigaya and told them that Japan would handle the matter subjectively, and I had spoken about how much support we would request from the U.S. forces. So it was only to confirm that, and to ask for their understanding regarding the truth behind the biggest issue in terms of sharing information – specifically about the nuclear plant that the U.S. side wanted to know so much about – “Even we only know this much.” It was just after the initial week, just when we had finally got consultations going with the U.S. and a new operation had commenced. I wanted someone to be there to prevent any misunderstandings and eliminate any feelings of distrust. The commanders-in-chief may get along well, but you never know how it will go at the field level. I feel that it is extremely important for both joint staff to be in the field talking face-to-face.

The rule of emergency staffing is “Two for a single role”

Funabashi: There was one moment during this series of incidents that made me feel anxious about Japan’s readiness for a national crisis.

It was when the first responders from the SDF, police and firefighters went to the site wearing white protective suits, and the residents became angry and confused, and responded emotionally, saying, “So you’re only going to protect yourselves?” The first responders need to protect themselves and work sustainably in order to protect the citizens. The citizens seem to lack that awareness. The first responders also need to explain this carefully to the residents, but there appeared to be a lack of effort there as well. It was painfully clear to me that our nation was not able to handle how each side should share and bear their part of the risk in a crisis.

Oriki: The Japanese value of jou (feelings for one another) means that when we are close to one another, we feel each other’s feelings and notice hardships. On the other hand, we tend to expect jou connections, which probably makes it difficult for the residents to objectively understand how the mission of the SDF troops in front of them must continue or what preparations are required. Even for the troops, when they come into direct contact with the individual residents on site, they tend to feel for them. That is a Japanese virtue, but indeed, there are things that we can and cannot do, and that perspective is what the SDF organization needs to communicate to citizens.

I feel that way for a certain reason. As a Special Advisor to the Minister of Defense, I am currently involved in research, disaster prevention plans and training concerning the Nankai Trough and sub-Tokyo earthquakes. And in doing so, I naturally start seeing the limits of what the SDF can do. The SDF cannot deal with the Nankai Trough or sub-Tokyo earthquakes in the same way that we handled the Great East Japan Earthquake, in which damage was concentrated in Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and certain parts of the Kanto Area.

Funabashi: In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the SDF established a force of 100,000 in the short span of one week. There are numerous SDF camps in areas that are assumed to incur damage in the Nankai Trough and sub-Tokyo earthquakes, and the transportation system is quite developed. Where do you consider the greatest constraint to be?

Oriki: In first response. In terms of manpower, we could probably set up a force on a similar scale to the one that handled the Great East Japan Earthquake. But the Nankai Trough earthquake assumes damage over a broad area. It anticipates huge damage from Kyushu to the Chukyo area. We would prioritize rescue, so troops would start from the area close to where they are stationed. The area of damage is too broad, so particularly with first response, we cannot focus our troops as we did on Tohoku. So when people start expecting the same first response, they will end up thinking, “Why don’t they come to our region?” It ultimately comes down to the local autonomies to put in their full efforts to develop disaster prevention measures. I feel that we need to let the autonomies and the people know that there are limits in terms of what the SDF can do.

Funabashi: What I can recall in relation to the issue of sustainable disaster operations is the scene of the Fukushima Daiichi Plant immediately after the accident had occurred.

Seeing how the plant received no decent support from the headquarters, with its chief Yoshida Masao shouting in a manner that almost sounded like a scream, someone said, “This was how it was at Guadalcanal.” No food was provided; water provisions were even running low, and the impact was starting to mount on the frontline unit, but the headquarters kept saying, “Hang in there” and “Persevere.” The frontline unit had to endure attrition. Almost seventy years after the war ended, Japanese society was still doing the same thing. In that sense, the SDF had set up Recovery Centers at its camps in Aomori and Hirosaki and had let its troops rest.

Oriki: Consider disaster operations as operations and you need to be aware that it could be a long battle. If it is, we will not be able to endure it unless we work in shifts.

Since we actually form teams with the least number of people necessary, we don’t necessarily have the leisure to set up shifts. But the SDF has learned from really tough training, such as the U.S.-Japan Joint Training that lasts for a week to ten days, that we cannot possibly sustain long-term operations without working in shifts. That is why, after the Great East Japan Earthquake, we didn’t just set up the Recovery Centers; we even worked on the Central Command of Joint Staff to gradually change it to a shift system.

What hinders this notion is the commander’s sense of responsibility. His boss would tell him to rest because he has been working for too long, but he won’t. He says that he can’t sleep anyway. This only makes the commander the first to wear out. It’s a truly Japanese way of working, but it’s an unmistakable fact that the more fatigue you bear amid the turbulence, the less capable you are of making correct judgments. The U.S. forces are quite clear on that, and when they decide what time at night they will be switching, they leave their post at precisely that time. We have seen the American style with our own eyes, so the SDF is starting to become familiar with it as well.

With our peacetime work, we need to teach our troops to expect one person to perform two roles due to a lack of manpower, but once a disaster event or war occurs, it becomes “Two for a single role.” It’s completely the opposite notion. This switch in thinking is important for organizations with responsibility for risk management.

Funabashi: Were you able to switch to your relief?

Oriki: It was extremely tough for about a month after the incident, but even so, from just after two weeks after the accident, I made sure that I was switching with the Co-chief of Staff and the Operation Director. However, retreating to the officers’ residence merely a few minutes’ walk away still meant that I was on high alert, so I wasn’t able to rest very well. (Laughs.) But even if you can’t rest, leaving the situation even for a little while gives you the opportunity to pull back from the situation and see things objectively. On the field, you tend to make appropriate judgments, but when you return to your room and are alone, you find yourself coming up with completely different ideas, such as, “We still have to do this,” or “That was a pointless action.” I confirmed the fact that working in shifts is important, even for the commander.

Funabashi: Yoshida was the opposite. On site, where so many questions were posed from various directions, Yoshida was always sitting in the center. That was when I thought, “Does Yoshida ever get any time to be alone?” I don’t think he ever had a moment when he pushed the situation away from himself and quietly thought about it objectively. The commander must have needed a physical opportunity to be alone and take some quiet time off.

What “Information” means to a commander

Oriki: The state Yoshida was in must have been a tough one for a commander to judge information. The SDF, too, obviously has information that is necessary or not for each commanding position. There are staff members who assist the commander in operations, staffing and logistics, who prevent unnecessary information from directly entering the commander’s ears. They are responsible for integrating information from each field and reporting it, while suggesting the best plan. Without such an organization, the commander cannot possibly make objective judgments.

Funabashi: Still, I heard from your staff that you were extremely hungry for information. They say you persistently demanded “real” information. Despite your calm appearance, you were very emotional in that regard, they say. (Laughs.)

Oriki: I’m sure each individual perceived it differently. (Laughs.) I didn’t want all the information; I wanted to leave what I could to others, but I wanted to know a little more about the information I needed for my judgments. Information that goes to the commander is information that leads to decisions. You need to think about what the commander is thinking and what he must decide at that point. For example, if someone comes in with irrelevant information at a time when he needs to decide whether to withdraw his unit or enhance it, that only gets in the way.

Funabashi: It’s about sharing the situation. That requires staff sensibility, doesn’t it?

Oriki: And that’s exactly what the SDF trains for. In addition to real-action training that moves units, we repeatedly run command training that does not move units – map-top training, in other words – which is the basis of our education. And the purpose of this is to train that sensibility. It’s almost an organizational characteristic.

Funabashi: I often feel that Japanese society is terrible at training people, be it the government or the private sector. That is the Achilles’ heel of crisis management. This fall, the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima held government-led general training on nuclear power disaster prevention for the first time since the Fukushima accident. The catch was that it was not scripted, but the training ended up remaining within the realm of an “anticipated” accident.

Only the SDF carries out real training, which is why it was able to function in this crisis. The reason why the SDF is the only one that can do it is because it is essentially an organization for unanticipated situations such as war and major disasters and for preventing such events, and it thinks differently from when it runs its daily training.

Oriki: By repeatedly simulating unanticipated situations, the role of each division becomes clear. Then you start seeing the issues, as in what the division needs to do on a day-to-day basis, and what it must prepare for. Merely carrying out training that prepares well for what is anticipated would never bring any issues to light.

Funabashi: But the politics of bureaucracy or corporations tend to resist the act of identifying issues from the very process of developing the scenario. They say, “Why should our department be the one with the problem?” As a result, training becomes pre-established harmony. That’s why it doesn’t work. The nuclear power industry before the accident was a typical example. How can we overcome this?

Oriki: That’s the responsibility of the management of a corporation and the commander of a defense unit. There’s no other way but for the leader to change the mindset of his organization. For the SDF, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake was a major turning point that changed our perception of disaster operations. The SDF was criticized back then for the delay in terms of its first response, and we used that as a lesson and began carrying out training with local autonomies. We developed an awareness of the fact that it is our responsibility to identify issues from this training.

In the latest earthquake, and in SDF’s daily training as well, we formed a “team that evaluates,” and our efforts to take an objective stance are taking root within the organization. We have the team report objectively on – rather than offer criticism of – the commander’s judgment, the actions of Logistics and Staffing and whether or not they were mistaken, which we ultimately retain as lessons.

It also comes down to whether or not the organization is able to acknowledge its problems upfront. Unless it concentrates on doing this, it cannot run practical discussions, regardless of whether a situation is anticipated or not. It is too late to take responsibility after something has happened.

Funabashi: This also involves the issues of responsibility and authority. The fact that ambiguity is involved is a major issue within Japanese administrations and businesses, and it was a major issue in this latest crisis.

Oriki: Once the roles are identified and the missions are clarified, a commander can leave the fieldwork to his men as long as the responsibility remains clear. Otherwise, the people on top end up determining the responsibilities and authority.

What a commander delegates to his men in what way is an extremely difficult issue. The more he knows about the field, the more a commander has to suffer from and fight against his desire to make decisions by himself. But he fights that off by giving his men responsibility and authority according to their missions and roles, so he must delegate unless they have done something really wrong. While it is important for the boss to assume all responsibility, the system where a commander delegates authority and responsibility and allows the field to be responsible in doing what they can do is a fundamental notion of organizations and the key to maintaining the flexibility of an organization. To prevent the organization from stiffening and collapsing, it is important for it to clearly identify the authority and responsibility.

Funabashi: There was a scene in this latest crisis that displayed the ultimate form of leadership in a crisis. The day after the accident, Izawa Ikuo, the shift supervisor of the Central Control Room for the Nos. 1 & 2 reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, formed a “rush platoon” to vent the containment. As I heard from Izawa himself, the associated meeting got to the subject of deciding who would go first, and the place became deathly silent, which Izawa broke by saying, “I’ll go first.” Then he asked, “Who will come with me?” An operator older than him then noted, “Izawa, the shift supervisor needs to stay here. We’ll go.”

A young Central Control Room operator then brazenly suggested to Izawa, “Why do we have to remain in such a place as this?” to which Izawa, swallowing the logical explanation that he wanted to provide, simply said, “Please.” To this, the two senior operators older than Izawa bowed their heads together as well. The young operator acknowledged, “Understood.” When an organization is in a state of ultimatum, there is always more emotion than logic involved. Izawa’s story and the action of a leader voluntarily taking the biggest risk must have had decisive weight. But then again, if the SDF is about to, say, drop water from a helicopter, and the leader says, “I’ll do it,” the organization probably won’t last.

Oriki: That is an issue that is not related to the SDF, but to the size of the unit. For example, a platoon leader of about 30 men, a company commander of about 200, and a regimental commander of higher rank all have different responsibilities according to the unit’s scale. If a regimental commander said, “I’ll go first,” the organization would have no one to command it. But on the other hand, the smaller the unit is, the more its commander can take a “Follow me” style of leadership.

So a leader could motivate his men with emotion if it were a small unit, while the larger the organization becomes, the more he would need to act, maybe not to the level of heartlessness, but coolly and objectively.

Does the SDF really need a marine corps function? 

Funabashi: In this latest earthquake, the SDF organized a Joint Task Force formed across the Army, Navy and Air Forces for specific missions. Of course, the SDF had set up a Joint Staff before that to jointly operate the three forces. Both organizations were set up in the 21st century. The latest turn of events was the first crisis to test this notion of joint operation.

Oriki: We formed a JTF for the first time for this crisis, and set up a local headquarters in Sendai. It functioned extremely well for a first-time mission. Being a disaster of this magnitude, all the chiefs of the three forces had their minds strongly focused on working on this together. I wish to recognize this.

But we have a lot to think about in terms of the organization. As for my position as Chief of Staff, I spent about 40% of my time on U.S.-Japan coordination, assisting the Minister, and dealing with the Cabinet, and was only able to give about 60% to unit operation. In other words, I was unable to concentrate fully on unit operation. Learning from that lesson, the Operation Director who assists the Chief of Staff now has a co-director to serve him, which allows us to assign minister assistance and unit operation to each position. Based on what I learned from the experience, I changed the organization structure little by little even after the quake.

Funabashi: The Operation Division is in effect the General Staff, isn’t it? The Central Readiness Force (CRF) of the JGSDF, which is the mobile operation unit under the Minister and which played a crucial role in the nuclear plant accident, is another new unit that was established in 2007. Being a unique presence in the SDF, it has reestablished itself as a necessary unit in crises. Don’t you think that the SDF needs to develop this unit into something like the U.S. Marines? Of course, we’re not letting it carry out foreign campaigns, but the Marines is also an emergency operation force, and with the mission of protecting lives, it has units like the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) that deals with chemical weapons, radiation and terrorism.

Oriki: This is an issue that needs to be considered together with the JGSDF’s issue of a General Command function. The JGSDF currently does not have a General Command that conveys commands to the five Army Headquarters nationwide. The JMSDF has a Commander in Chief of the Self Defense Fleet, and the JASDF has a Commander in Chief of the Air Defense Command, but the JGSDF has yet to integrate its line of command. The debate on whether or not to add a marine corps function to the CRF may provide a General Command for a line troop unit. In addition to the Airborne Brigade and the Central Nuclear Biological Chemical Weapon Defense Unit operating at the national level, we would have a line troop unit with a marine corps function. A marine corps function is a vital element for island defense. Serious discussions are underway to develop a new defense program outline.

The day the SDF became “The Citizen’s SDF”

Funabashi: When we think about the risks of Japan’s national security from a long-term perspective, we notice that there are extremely high risks in military and nonmilitary areas. New elements arise one after another – pandemics, cyber terrorism, global warming – and the latest earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant accident were some of these. That expands the SDF’s roles to span an enormous area. Don’t you think there will be such situations in the future that would become risks as huge as a military conflict, where we will have to employ our military asset, the SDF, in order to deal with them?

Oriki: The nonmilitary threats you just mentioned are not merely risks of the SDF, but are essentially risks of the nation. We need to go back to our roots and think about the ideal state of the SDF. How much should we shift from military to nonmilitary risks? That’s something that we need to debate together with discussions on the new defense program outline.

There’s also the issue of how the nation would handle risks using the National Security Council (Japan’s version of the NSC) that the Abe administration is currently considering. We need to set out a clear policy on what the Cabinet, ministries and SDF would each do. And that doesn’t mean that the SDF would evade responsibility; I believe that the more complex risks become, the more important it will be for the nation to responsibly set a national direction.

Funabashi: So in that sense, you feel that the bill to set up the Japanese NSC that may pass the Assembly this term is – despite some saying it was far too late – timely action, right? I’m sure that the SDF members would be part of the NSC, and that they would contribute with their experience and expertise. What do you imagine the contributions would be?

Oriki: Everyone tells me that we should take advantage of the SDF members, but we first need to develop human resources who are capable of using the knowledge and experience of the SDF appropriately. This fall, I visited the United Kingdom, where the government launched the NSC in 2010. While I was talking to a Ministry of Defence representative, we began discussing the  fact that for the NSC to make use of military and defense knowledge, it would need a more practical and effective plan. We need to train people who are not only fluent in terms of military knowledge, but who also understand current politics, foreign affairs and economics. And that information would include the military secrets of the U.S. and Japan. The National Secrecy bill passed the Cabinet meeting the other day, but as long as we are receiving information on the U.S. forces, we need to have a strict information management system, or else we will not receive accurate information.

Funabashi: Grand Chamberlain Kawashima Yutaka had provided our magazine (August 2011) with a lively description of the feelings of Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan concerning the Great East Japan Earthquake. In the article, there is an account of when Their Majesties visited Miyagi Prefecture for the first time after the quake in April 2011, when they had lunch with Governor Murai Yoshihiro and Lieutenant General Kimizuka Eiji of the JGSDF Northeastern Army who had commanded the SDF Joint Task Force. Kimizuka attended this occasion in uniform. I believe this was the first such event since our country enacted the post-war Constitution of Peace. His Majesty’s words immediately after the quake started with, “Led by the Self-Defense Forces, the police, the fire department and the Coast Guard…,” positioning the SDF at the top of the order. I feel that this expresses the magnitude of the expectations His Majesty places on the role of the SDF and symbolizes the citizens’ feelings that the SDF is their “last stand.” 

Oriki: It was deeply moving to feel that we are finally in an age where we are offered an audience with the Emperor and Empress. It has been a long road. The citizens evaluated the SDF after the quake, with over 90% stating that we made a “Very good impression.” This is a figure that the U.S. Forces would be amazed at.

The earthquake was a truly unfortunate disaster, but through our ensuing operations, I feel that for the first time ever, we won the broad approval of the people as the “Citizen’s Self-Defense Forces” in the true sense of the word. The SDF now needs to meet these expectations. It is a source of strength to us to know that we have a greater responsibility on our hands.

Translated from “Abe Sori ‘Choki Seiken’ eno Chokugen Nankai torafu, Shuto Chokkagata Jishin… Jieitai no Genkai wo Aete Uttaetai (A direct proposition to the “long-term” Abe administration Crisis leadership: Nankai Trough, sub-Tokyo earthquake…Voicing the limits to the Self-Defense Forces out loud)”,’ Bungeishunju, December 2013, pp. 164-173. (Courtesy of Bungeishunju Ltd.)