SDF’s activities in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake

GSDF 13th Engineer Unit removing the rubble
GSDF 13th Engineer Unit removing the rubble

The Joint Task Force (JTF) comprising the three self-defense forces, established three days after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 14 under the orders of then Defense Minister Kitazawa, was abolished on July 1. On August 31, the command to terminate the large-scale disaster dispatch was issued, and converted to a normal disaster dispatch command.

With regard to assistance provided at the request of the Governor of Fukushima Prefecture, approximately 600 personnel, including the 44th Infantry (Fukushima) and 6th Infantry Regiment (Koriyama) assigned to the 6th Division under the command of the Headquarters of the Northeastern Army, provided bathing assistance to earthquake victims. In addition, the 9th Chemical Protection Units (Aomori) and other troops have worked continuously to decontaminate residents returning home temporarily to areas around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The SDF’s disaster relief operations reached a scale exceeding 10 million personnel.

On August 31, the Ministry of Defense terminated the large-scale disaster dispatch that had kept up for the half year since the earthquake first struck.

At 14:46 on March 11, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 struck the eastern part of Japan, mainly in the Tohoku region. The Ministry of Defense immediately set up an Emergency Response Headquarters and established a local command center at the GSDF Headquarters for the Tohoku region located in Sendai City. Local troops then commenced surveillance activities of the crisis-hit areas. Approximately one hour after the earthquake struck, a tsunami assailed an extremely wide area of the Pacific coast spanning from Aomori Prefecture to Chiba Prefecture. Waves exceeding ten meters in height swallowed many cities and towns along the coasts of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, causing immense damage.

While the SDF’s bases were also damaged in the tsunami, the three self-defense forces (Ground, Maritime, and Air) put their utmost into saving lives. At 18:00, then Defense Minister Kitazawa issued the command for a large-scale disaster dispatch. From the first day of the disaster, the SDF deployed more than 8,000 personnel to carry out operations. Thereafter, it increased its deployment strength from 20,000 to 50,000, and then to 100,000. As SDF personnel transported relief supplies to crisis-hit areas and provided water, food, and bathing assistance, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which had been directly struck by the tsunami, lost part of its cooling function. The Government declared a state of nuclear emergency and designated areas lying within 20km radius of the power plant as evacuation areas. GSDF’s Central Readiness Force poised itself to command NBC Weapon Defense Unit and gathered in Fukushima. From March 12 to 15, hydrogen explosions at three nuclear power stations led to the collapse of buildings, and four personnel engaged in the cooling of nuclear reactors were injured. Contamination from scattered radioactive substances became more widespread, and the situation took a drastic turn for the worse.

On March 14, then Defense Minister Kitazawa issued an order for the formation of JTF to facilitate the integral command and operation of the three self-defense forces. Under the command of Eiji Kimizuka, then Commander of the Headquarters for the Tohoku region, a large-scale relief operation was launched. By March 22, the SDF had rescued 19,300 people. The SDF ready reserve personnel had been called up for a disaster for the first time, and they were dispatched and provided back-end support on the disaster site.

In close coordination with SDF the U.S. Forces provided a large scale of assistance, known as “Operation TOMODACHI”, in the form of search and rescue, transportation of relief supplies, recovery of airports/seaports, and cleanup of schools with the maximum deployment of about 15 vessels, 140 aircraft, and 16,000 personnel. They also provided support such as CBIRF deployment and barges in response to the nuclear plant disaster.

With the understanding of municipalities, search operations for missing persons were mostly terminated by June, three months after the disaster first struck. The main task of the JTF shifted to the provision of daily life support for sufferers, and the scale of the troops was gradually reduced.

On August 31, the Ministry of Defense declared the termination of large-scale disaster dispatch operations, with the exception of nuclear disaster response and bathing assistance for victims in Fukushima Prefecture.

The response to the major earthquake, spanning 174 days, saw the dispatch of a total of 10.63 million personnel. In the farewell address that he gave on September 5, then Defense Minister Kitazawa commended the troops on their courageous efforts, and said that the results of the dispatch of SDF personnel in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake would be carved into history.

Abolishment of the JTF

Bathing support provided by SDF
Bathing support provided by SDF
Air Central Musical Band which performed in Tohoku
Air Central Musical Band which performed in Tohoku
SDF personnel amassing relief supplies
SDF personnel amassing relief supplies

In the relief operations for the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Joint Task Force comprising the Ground, Maritime, and Air self-defense forces was abolished 110 days after the disaster first struck.

On July 1, then Defense Minister Kitazawa issued an order for the abolishment of the JTF at a meeting of the Emergency Response Headquarters. The JTF had been commandeered by Eiji Kimizuka, then Commander of the Headquarters for the Tohoku region, Hiromi Takashima, then Commander of the Headquarters for the Yokosuka region, and Haruhiko Kataoka, Commander of the Air Defense Command.

With the establishment of a Reconstruction Headquarters headed by then Prime Minister Kan on June 28, the focus of operations gradually shifted from disaster relief to reconstruction. As such, the daily life assistance provided mostly by local troops on site, which had continued thereafter, was converted to disaster relief operations in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima after July 5, with a force of approximately 28,400 personnel.

Then Defense Minister Kitazawa cited, as the reason for that, the establishment of a basic law for reconstruction, the proposal submitted by the Reconstruction Design Council on June 25, the first meeting of the Reconstruction Headquarters headed by then Prime Minister Kan on June 28, and so on, which meant the concrete steps toward the reconstruction of the crisis-hit areas.

Then Defense Minister Kitazawa gave orders for the continuance of disaster relief operations centered on local GSDF personnel, in response to requests for daily life support made to SDF personnel who had remained in some of the areas thereafter. At the same time, he requested that personnel respond in a sensitive manner with consideration for the emotions of the victims.

He also conveyed his heartfelt gratitude to the personnel, including the commanders, of the Joint Task Force, for completing the mission in a prompt and precise manner. He expressed that the Ministry of Defense and SDF had responded to the people with great compassion, and written a significant page in the history of the Ministry and the Forces. He also expressed his hopes that they would continue to put in their best efforts to assist regional reconstruction work hereon.

The Joint Task Force completed the following operations:
Lives saved: 19,286  /   Bodies housed: 9,500 (61% of all fatalities)  /   Medical assistance provided: 23,370 people
Water provided: 32,985 tons  /   Food provided: 4,715,453 meals  /   Bathing assistance provided: 972,293 people

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