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Reflecting on Operation Tomodachi: Personal connections spurred government action

By Masahiko Hisae, Kyodo


Two days after the Great East Japan Earthquake on the evening of March 13, 2011, Robert Eldridge, who was then deputy assistant chief of staff for government and external affairs with the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa, spoke by phone in Japanese with then-State Minister of the Cabinet Office Shozo Azuma, calling for the “immediate recovery of the decimated Sendai Airport,” and “securing of supply bases to aid the victims.”


Azuma contacted the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and obtained the approval of then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan through then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirohisa Fujii. This was the moment when the joint Japan-U.S. rescue operations, later known as “Operation Tomodachi,” came into being.


On the evening of March 11, the Japanese government requested assistance from the U.S. military via a diplomatic channel. The U.S. government issued the mobilization of the U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) through the U.S. Pacific Command. However, it had not yet been decided where they would go and what they would do.  


The Japanese government and the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were making utmost efforts to rescue the victims amid the chaos caused by the accident Tokyo Electric Co. Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The situation would have gotten even worse if there were no supply bases to deliver supplies to victims. Eldridge advised the top brass of the Marine Corps at an emergency meeting on the morning of March 12 that Sendai Airport was the most geographically suitable location for a supply base.


Why did Eldridge contact Azuma directly?


“With Japan’s administrative sectionalism and bottom-up system, I was worried that it would take several months, possibly even a year, until Sendai Airport resumed operations,” says Eldridge. The government certainly was not in a state to set up supply bases.


At the time, Eldridge did not know Azuma personally. Former Lower House lawmaker Hitoshi Yonetsu, an old acquaintance of Azuma’s, brought the two together.


Hirofumi Hirano, who was Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Hatoyama administration, had given Yonetsu a special assignment on the restructuring of the U.S. military. On March 10, the day before the disaster, Eldridge had just submitted a proposal for Japan-U.S. mutual assistance cooperation during disasters, which he had been working on for five years, with Yonetsu as an intermediary. This behind-the-scenes network of contacts was the driving force behind the deployment of the U.S. military.


A propeller aircraft carrying Eldridge and members of the Marine Corps frontline command left the Futenma Air Base after 8 a.m. on March 13. Additional personnel boarded at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and spent the night at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo. The next day, they flew over the western side of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, where an explosion had occurred, and landed at the Ground Self-Defense Force Camp Sendai, meeting the SDF Joint Task Force. On the early morning of March 15, three Marine Corps officers and one Army officer flew to Sendai Airport in a GSDF helicopter.


Standing among the rubble, Eldridge, the SDF Joint Staff, GSDF top officers, and airport officials, held talks to decide on the division of labor and necessary equipment. Eldridge remembers seeing several bodies washed up by the tsunami. “It was like a war zone, a race against time,” says Eldridge.


U.S. military equipment, such as forklifts, was airlifted there. About 200 Marine Corps troops worked to restore the runways. A U.S. Air Force squad arrived from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. A special forces team built a temporary air control system to restore the function of the damaged control tower. The U.S. military personnel slept in the boarding areas and ate military rations.


Sendai Airport had thus became an important base for Operation Tomodachi by early April 2011. Food and supplies such as blankets sent to Sendai Airport were then delivered to the Pacific coastal areas of the Tohoku region by land and air. The Marine Corps was wholly responsible for the recovery of Oshima in Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture, which had become isolated due to delays in aid.


At the time, there was increasing opposition in Okinawa to the relocation of Futenma Air Base to the Henoko district of Nago City. Some people claimed that the U.S. military assistance was aimed at containing the opinions of the people of Okinawa and opposition within Japan. Eldridge says, however, that he “only wanted to help, as a U.S. military officer in Japan.” (Abridged)


Operation Tomodachi reflects U.S. military’s basic strategy


The U.S. military-led Operation Tomodachi was the first instance of the U.S. military being mobilized in Japanese territory since World War II. The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty does not contain mention U.S. military cooperation in natural disasters. The operation was an extralegal measure based on a request.


Operation Tomodachi strongly reflects the U.S. military’s basic strategy of prioritizing supply bases during contingencies. This reflects the U.S. military’s DNA as an expeditionary army that has been involved in wars overseas. It is fundamentally different from the SDF, whose purpose is “exclusively defensive” based on the Constitution. Would Japan request cooperation from the U.S. military if faced with a similar natural disaster? People have different views about the USFJ, and its position in natural disasters has not been clearly established.

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