Defense Activities

The SDF’s Activities in the Great East Japan Earthquake

Search unit personnel sorting rubble.
Search unit personnel sorting rubble.

At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, a major earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale–the strongest earthquake ever observed in Japan–struck off the coast of Sanriku in the Tohoku region. The vibrations caused by this earthquake were felt mainly in East Japan, but were also observed over a wide area stretching from Hokkaido to Kyushu region. As a result of this earthquake, tsunami waves also occurred along the coasts of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures, causing serious damage. The unprecedented scale of the disaster was exacerbated by the leakage of radioactive materials resulting from damage to the nuclear reactor at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

Activity posture of the Minister of Defense and Self-Defense Forces

SDF personnel searching for missing persons.
SDF personnel searching for missing persons.

In addition to setting up the Disaster Response Headquarters at the Ministry of Defense at 2:50 p.m., the Ministry of Defense and Self-Defense Forces collected information using aircraft, and the Minister of Defense ordered Large-scale Earthquake Disaster Dispatch at 6:00 p.m.; at 7:30 p.m., he ordered Nuclear Disaster Relief Dispatch. As such, once the disaster struck, approximately 8,400 personnel and 190 aircraft were mobilized for activities such as the search and rescue of victims and missing persons. Even admist serious damage to SDF facilities at Camp Tagajyou and Matsushima Air Base, as well as the submerging of aircraft and vehicles, the initial response to the disaster involved, as far as possible, the speedy and large-scale deployment of personnel and equipment.

SDF personnel paying respect to the disaster victims.
SDF personnel paying respect to the disaster victims.

In order to strengthen activity capability in the disaster areas in the dispatch of relief for the large-scale earthquake disaster, a joint task force comprising ground, maritime, and air units and commandeered by the Commanding General of the GSDF Northeastern Army was established, and deployed to conduct search and rescue activities for victims and missing persons. For the first time apart from training situations, ready reserve personnel and reseve personnel were called up based on the SDF Law. The full strength of the SDF was involved in the efforts, and following instructions issued by the Prime Minister, a maximum of 107,000 personnel were dispatched to carry out activities on March 26.

Rescue of victims and search for missing persons

SDF personnel up to their waist in water while searching for missing persons.
SDF personnel up to their waist in water while searching for missing persons.

A major tsunami occurred over a wide region as a result of this earthquake, leaving many villages isolated in the coastal areas and large numbers of persons missing. The SDF put in its utmost efforts to conduct search and rescue activities, putting the saving of lives as its highest priority.

Units dispatched for disaster relief worked together with the Japan Coast Guard, as well as the police and fire departments to rescue the large numbers of victims from collapsed houses and houses washed away by the tsunami. They also used helicopters at isolated villages and vessels on sea to conduct rescue activities, and succeeded in rescuing approximately 19,000 people–approximately 70% of about 27,000 people rescued.

Divers searching near the coastline.
Divers searching near the coastline.

As time passed since the day the earthquake struck, the SDF’s activities moved from the rescue of victims to the search for missing persons. The search for missing persons involved the careful removal of rubble from houses that have collapsed in the earthquake or which were washed away by the tsunami. Search activities were also conducted in flooded areas using boats, and SDF members searched for missing persons in areas where water levels were waist-deep. The SDF, along with the Japan Coast Guard, the police and fire departments, and the U.S. Forces, carried out intensive search activities a total of three times (over six days) at the coastal areas of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures.

Livelihood support–providing food, water, and bathing facilities

SDF personnel making rice balls for disaster victims.
SDF personnel making rice balls for disaster victims.
SDF personnel transferring rations from a UP-3D.
SDF personnel transferring rations from a UP-3D.

Support for the provision of water such as drinking water and water for use in daily life, as well as support for the provision of food, is vital to the sustenance of victims. In addition, bathing support is also considered to be of great importance to the mental and physical health of victims amidst circumstances that make it difficult to secure water and fuel. With these considerations in mind, the SDF has put in all its efforts to help as many victims as possible. To that end, it has set up a maximum of approximately 200 water supply locations, 100 food supply facilities, and 35 outdoor bathing facilities to meet the needs of victims living amidst severe conditions as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Water was supplied through water tank vehicles and water trailers. Water was provided regularly to shelters and disaster areas that have been cut off from their water supply sources. For shelters that are difficult to access due to narrow roads, or shelters that have difficulty moving water supplies due to the large number of senior residents, SDF members went the extra mile to provide support by fetching and distributing water directly to the people.

the SDF also opened up the bathing facilities at Matsushima Air Base and Hachinohe Air Base, as well as the bathrooms in destroyers and transport vessels. With the suppor t of the U.S. Forces, shower sets were also made available. In order to ensure that as many victims as possible were able to use the facilities, bath days and hours were arranged, and attention was paid to details such as providing pick-up services for victims using SDF vehicles and landing craft air cushion (LCAC).

Medical activities

SDF personnel providing first aid.
SDF personnel providing first aid.

Medical support was centered on disaster areas that had been cut off from traffic networks and areas that had become isolated. Seven medical officers were dispatched by rescue helicopter to the elementary school grounds of Ishinomaki City, and the medical officers walked to three shelters and provided medical help to 49 people. For offshore islands such as Tashirojima and Ajishima, traveling clinics and medical supplies were transported by air to provide victims with medical care and keep them healthy.

Call-up for reserve personnel

In order to secure SDF personnel promptly and systematically during largescale disasters and times of emergency, Japan has put in place an SDF reserve personnel system. Under the system, those who are registered as SDF reserve personnel receive training during times of normalcy, and carry out the same activities as regular SDF personnel when they are called up. Since the establishment of this system, approximately 2,200 ready reserve personnel and 500 reserve personnel have been called up to conduct search activities for missing persons, conduct medical relief activities and guard operations at military camps, clear roads and transport supplies, provide daily life support to victims, and provide translation support for the U.S. Forces in Japan that are carrying out support and cooperation activities.

Nuclear disaster relief dispatch

Measuring radiation dosages through screenings.
Measuring radiation dosages through screenings.
Injecting water into Unit 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Injecting water into Unit 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

As a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accompanying tsunami, nuclear emergency was declared at the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini Nuclear Power Plants on March 11 (Friday) and 12 (Saturday) respectively. Thereafter, the Chief of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, the Prime Minister, made a request for the dispatch of the SDF, and the Minister of Defense ordered Nuclear Disaster Relief Dispatch. Consequently, GSDF helicopters CH-47J were dispatched to drop water over the third reactor of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and firetrucks were also deployed to spray water over the third and fourth reactors of the same plant. ASDF RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft carried out air reconnaissance activities, while GSDF CH-47J helicopters mounted with infrared thermography devices measured temperatures as part of efforts to get a good grasp of the situation.

Furthermore, SDF vehicles and helicopters helped to evacuate patients from hospitals within 20km of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and provided support for transporting residents and patients in Deliberate Evacuation Areas and Evacuation-Prepared Areas In Case of Emergency. They also provided decontamination assistance for residents who have been evacuated temporarily, and helped to drain water out of flooded areas.

With regard to the search for missing persons within a 30km-radius from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the SDF obtained information on radiation dosages in the search areas, managed radiation in an appropriate manner, and conducted searches for missing persons. Intensive searches were also conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Forces and the police. On the seas lying within the 30km-radius of Fukushima Daiichi, the SDF, along with MSDF vessels and helicopters, and Japan Coast Guard, conducted a total of two searches for missing persons.

In order to provide support for aerial monitoring carried out within 80km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, implemented by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, flight support was provided within a 10 to 40km radius using ASDF UH-60J helicopter.

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