Ground Self-Defense Force light armored vehicles leave Tsushima Garrison to take part in rescue efforts in Kumamoto. GSDF photo

Japan’s Military Mobilizes — and Pacifists Protest — as Quakes Rock Kumamoto

Evacuees number in the thousands

by JAMES SIMPSON

Earthquakes are rattling Japan’s western island of Kyushu. A magnitude-6.2 quake struck the town of Mashiki in Kumamoto Prefecture at 9:26 p.m. on April 14.

The 20 seconds of violent shaking reached the maximum possible value of seven on the shindo scale that Japan uses to measure the intensity of earthquakes.

But this earthquake was only a preview of a larger, magnitude-7.3 earthquake that struck the prefectural capital 28 hours later, at 1:25 a.m. on April 16.

So far, responders have counted 41 fatalities, most of them crushed in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Around 183 people have sustained serious injuries.

If the human cost of the earthquake seems low, it’s because of the earthquake-proofing Japan has instituted since the Great Hanshin Earthquake that killed 6,000 people in 1995.

And the military’s rapid response has probably also saved lives. Still, some critics want to strip the Self-Defense Forces of their disaster-relief role.

Firefighters, police and soldiers have been working around the clock to pull people from the rubble amid almost constant tremors.

As the shaking continues, nearly 100,000 people have left their homes to seek refuge at government facilities such as schools and town halls. These strengthened public buildings will shelter evacuees for days or even weeks, until authorities can find new housing.

In the meantime, Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force is working alongside civilian aid agencies to provide food and hygiene services, in the same way it did in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.

Much of the discussion around Japan’s military capabilities focuses on the “will-they/won’t-they” anguish of re-militarization. But Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force most frequently deploys as a disaster-relief organization, with more than 500 humanitarian dispatches each year since 2010.

Some Japanese want it to stay that way. Others … not so much.

A Ground Self-Defense Force UH-1 surveillance helicopter fitted with live-broadcasting equipment. GSDF photo

First response

Within an hour of the large quake on April 14, local Self-Defense Forces bases dispatched aircraft to help assess the damage.

The first in the air were two Mitsubishi F-2 fighters from Tsuiki Air Base in Fukuoka Prefecture. The pilots were on five-minute air-defense standby and took off, fully armed, just 21 minutes after the quake hit.

At 9:51 p.m., a Ground Self-Defense Force liaison officer left his garrison in Kumamoto city to make contact with the Kumamoto Prefectural Office, which is responsible for coordinating disaster-relief efforts across the region.

Before the prefectural governor issued an official request for aid to the military at 10:40 p.m., 10 more aircraft had taken off from bases across the region, a second liaison officer had left for Mashiki Town Hall and a first response team — a so-called “FAST Force” — of six servicemen in two vehicles had left their base in Kita-Kumamoto.

The first two helicopters in the air were Ground Self-Defense Force UH-1 Hueys fitted with live-broadcast equipment. Leaving at 10:02, they began streaming live aerial footage to the government and media.

They found regions plunged into darkness by black-outs and fires resulting from gas leaks in collapsed and damaged buildings. This airborne imaging capability, which Japan acquired following the ’95 quake, is always on 15-minute alert.

The other aircraft were five Air and Ground Self-Defense Force UH-60s, one Maritime Self-Defense Force SH-60, one MSDF P-3C maritime patrol aircraft and two ASDF U-125 flight inspection jets whose main mission is to test the safety and accuracy of navigational aids.

These first-responders were not going to be able to mount rescue operations, but they were essential to any prompt military response. In checking the roads, government offices and infrastructure, they were able to provide an accurate picture of the damage on the ground.

This an area of incredible improvement since ’95, when power outages and bottlenecked communications prevented the Self-Defense Forces from receiving an official appeal for aid from the local government. In that case the prefectural governor’s request took two days.

Under modern disaster-relief practices in Japan, the military must wait for an official appeal for help from local government or the prime minister before conducting relief efforts, except in “particularly urgent situations when it is deemed there is no time to wait,” such as fires in government facilities.

But the military retains a limited capacity for independent action, in order to prevent the unforgivable delays associated with the Hanshin quake.

Footage from a Ground Self-Defense Force UH-1 surveillance helicopter. GSDF photo

Rescue efforts

With an official request from Kumamoto governor Ikuo Kabashima, the military began working alongside firefighters and police officials to check wrecked houses for survivors.

The earthquake was particularly shallow, occurring just 10 kilometers below the surface. That meant more severe violent shaking than in a quake with a deeper epicenter — and inflicted greater damage on buildings. Many of the deaths from this first earthquake were close to the epicenter in Mashiki. The main cause — collapsing structures.

The earthquake struck Kumamoto at night, making it even more difficult for rescuers to navigate the rubble.

Landslides — a consequence of the quake-induced liquefaction of the ground — have also limited access across the region. This, along with collapsed bridges and cracked roads, can delay relief efforts.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on April 15 that he had mobilized 3,000 Self-Defense Force personnel to help in Kumamoto. He told the Diet that troops were “racing against the clock” — and that the size of the relief force would increase as necessary.

The first 72 hours after a disaster are the most important. After this “golden period,” the chances of survival plummet. The faster the response, the greater the survivors’ chances.

By the night of April 15, around 1,500 military rescue and relief workers were on the ground, working alongside 1,900 police and 2,900 firefighters.

Both the police and fire services have deployed urban search-and-rescue teams on the ground. A Disaster Medical Assistance Team is also on its way to Kumamoto to lend specialist medical skills. Japan possess several canine rescue team manned by volunteers, some of whom have military backgrounds.

Masahiro Taniguchi, formerly of the Secretariat of Japan Disaster Relief Team and World Food Program and a specialist in civil-military coordination, said he’s wary of giving these specialist roles to the military, calling it an “irrelevant and excess expectation.”

Firefighters and police personnel work in rescue operations every day, but soldiers typically cannot gain the same experience.

“Urban search and rescue skills and techniques include breaching concrete structures without the resultant debris injuring the confined victim,” Taniguchi explained. “SDF infantry and engineers are not trained in such skills.”

Soldiers work best as workhorses, putting their physical training and discipline to use in the assistance of experts. That has been the role of the 1,500 Ground Self-Defense Force members on the ground during the first day of rescue operations.

In the early hours of April 16, a larger earthquake — with similar magnitude as the catastrophic 1995 Hanshin quake — struck Kumamoto. More buildings collapsed, more fires ignited and the death toll has — so far — quadrupled. Even larger aftershocks could occur in the near future.

Following this second quake, the entire village of Nishihara — with a population of around 7,000 — evacuated over fears that a nearby dam could collapse. Neighboring Oita Prefecture was also hit hard. The Oita prefectural governor has also called for military assistance. The Ministry of Defense is weighing an offer of assistance from the U.S. government.

The government pledged 25 more troops on April 17. While many of troops will be directly involved in the search for survivors, in the long run many will shift to providing food, water and health assistance to the tens of thousands of evacuees sheltering in public buildings.

Ground Self-Defense Force field kitchen preparing food for evacuees at Mashiki Town Hall. GSDF photo

Relief efforts

With more than 200,000 homes lacking power and nearly 100,000 people in evacuation shelters, perhaps the most important role for the Self-Defense Forces is to make sure that the survivors … stay alive.

By April 15, over 200 support personnel had arrived at Mashiki Town Hall to provide medical assistance, food and water. The Ground Self-Defense Force deploys two-ton field cooking units — trailers fitted with large rice-cooking containers and burners for miso soup, pork broth and other dishes.

One of these trailers can feed 200 people. Upgrades in 2012 added refrigerators and better water efficiency.

Feeding the evacuees is a mammoth task. Reports from April 15 suggest that local food supplies at a shelter in Mashiki ran out almost immediately. The military ordered 80 soldiers to make supply runs for food but also blankets, bottled water, portable toilets and tents.

An Osumi-class landing ship is on its way with food for 66,000 people. Its flight deck functioned as a seaborne heliport in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.

In addition to food, the military must also supply water and electricity. Government-designated evacuation shelters have their own emergency water and power supplies, but the April 16 earthquake cut water supplies across the entirety of Kumamoto city.

The military brings in oil generators and its own water in five-ton inflatable tanks. The water is potable. You can drink it, bathe in it or do your laundry.

Many people were still living in evacuation shelters up to four months after the 2011 tsunami. For as long as their relief mission continued, the Self-Defense Forces ran temporary field bathhouses that each deploy aboard a single 3.5-ton truck.

Resembling traditional Japanese bathhouses, these facilities can serve as many as 1,200 people a day.

For laundry, the military deploys Field Laundry Set Type-2 units — trailers each consisting of two washing machines and a dryer that together can process 40 items of clothing per hour.

As an organization that must frequently house and feed its own personnel in the field, the Self-Defense Forces are uniquely capable of providing these services. But there are some who feel like the military shouldn’t handle these tasks after a disaster.

A GSDF field bathhouse at Onagawa Gymnasium in July 2011. James Simpson photo

Disaster relief and public opinion

In country where the existence of a military force is still contentious and the constitutionality of its activities even more so, the Self-Defense Forces’ disaster-response mission has allowed it to bridge the gap between civilians and the military — particularly after their extensive and critically important deployment to Tohoku in 2011.

But for hardcore pacifists who question the constitutionality of Japan’s military, this reliance on the Self-Defense Forces is problematic.

The most notable proponent of demilitarizing disaster relief is Waseda law professor Asaho Mizushima. In an Asahi Shimbun editorial dated May 6, 2011 — two months after the tsunami struck Tohoku and killed nearly 16,000 people — Mizushima called for the Self-Defense Forces’ military role to be “gradually reduced” and for the armed forces to be “converted … into a multi-purpose non-military disaster relief corps, allowing [them] to deploy overseas.”

Mizushima is on the extreme end of the political spectrum and his editorial should be — and has been — ridiculed for its idealistic naivety. But he’s not alone.

In early April 2016, the laws governing the Self-Defense Forces’ activities changed, finally allowed the armed forces to use force to protect Japan’s allies. The changes sparked protests across Japan.

But relief operations supporting hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of evacuees require a level of mobilization that only a standing military force is capable of supplying.

Unlike the military, fire and police services are not part of a huge national organization. Each jurisdiction is distinct and separate. The police and firefighters make excellent first-responders because they have local knowledge, an almost ubiquitous presence and life-saving skills, but they do not have the national funding, heavy equipment and logistical skills necessary for full-scale mobilization.

A dedicated disaster-response force would have to poach from the same funding and labor pool as the Self-Defense Forces, whose recruitment is already strained by increasing private-sector job opportunities.

If you recognize that — with neighbors like China, North Korea and Russia — Japan needs a military, you can only conclude that separating the military and disaster-response roles would, itself, be disastrous.

The Self-Defense Forces have made enormous leaps in disaster-response capability since the 1995 disaster and have benefited significantly from regular mobilization. They are the backbone of the nation’s defense against not only foreign invasion, but against the earth itself.

Special thanks to Masahiro Taniguchi.

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