FUKUSHIMA, Japan — A 9.0-magnitude earthquake trembled off the coast of eastern Japan, producing devastating tsunami waves. The disaster caused over 15,000 deaths and wreaked severe damage on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, leading to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Immediately responding to the devastation, the United States government mobilized Pacific Command’s full capacity to assist the Japanese Self-Defense Forces with humanitarian relief and cleanup efforts. Operation Tomodachi (‘friend’), the largest bilateral operation in Japan, reignited a strained U.S.-Japan partnership.
Tsunami waves as high as 133 feet smashed into the coastline and flooded Fukushima’s power station, knocking out the power. Cooling systems failed and reactors overheated, causing nuclear fuel to melt. The reactors then released hydrogen, triggering explosions and deluging the air, land and sea with radioactive materials.
Twenty-four hours into the aftermath of the disaster, Japan performed miraculous rescues with the support of the United States: “Total number of people rescued stood at 14,937… 3,430,000 meals and 27,084 tons of water were provided; 545,773 people made use of the bathing assistance provided; 16,242 people received medical-related assistance and 319 km of roads were re-opened.”
Over the course of a month, the United States supplied more than 24,000 personnel, nearly 200 aircraft and two dozen naval vessels in direct support of humanitarian relief. U.S. Forces Japan’s efforts included the distribution of over 100 tons of supplies per day. American medical personnel treated the injured and force protection teams assisted with HAZMAT control. Commanders supplied critical equipment, engineering support and manpower.
Third Marine Division Commander Major General Brilakis deployed his regional assets from nearby Okinawa to assist. “We train to be able to rapidly shift gears and provide the support necessary to accomplish the mission whether the task is an exercise, operation or relief effort such as here in Honshu… to aggressively support Operation Tomodachi,” said Brilakis.
U.S. Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives teams (CBRNE) assisted with foreign consequence management, or the impacts of the radioactive contamination. “Special D.O.D. radiation health, environmental health, and emergency response teams” arrived to evaluate health threats, collect samples and clean up radioactive materials.
U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Forces Japan and the U.S. Pacific Fleet mended a weakening relationship between the United States and Japan. Though enemies during World War II, the United States has since relied on Japan as a regional Asia-Pacific ally and trade partner.
U.S. Carrier Strike Group Commander Rear Admiral Robert Girrier reaffirmed America’s commitment to Japan: “Tomodachi, friend and also trusted partner, ally, teammate, these words mean something. They describe a relationship well established but also deepened through adversity and through shared experience through learning quickly and growing stronger together.”
The National Bureau of Asian Research posits that “sudden disasters resulting in mass casualties, the widespread destruction of property and essential infrastructure, and the prolonged displacement of large populations… could present a broader threat to regional stability.” From a strategic perspective, the United States government recognizes the power and influence gained from humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
The United States aims to continue applying “strategic assistance” as a method to strengthen regional Asia-Pacific alliances in order to deter rising threats to international stability. The Bureau also published a report highlighting the three components of the strategic assistance agenda: “building resilience, strengthening response and enhancing recovery.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency identified lessons from Fukushima to help improve global nuclear safety via greater protection of nuclear facilities against natural hazards. But the United States military’s contributions during Operation Tomodachi forged a more poignant legacy.
All told, the DOD supplied more than 189 tons of food, 2 million gallons of water and 87 tons of relief materials. On the fifth anniversary of Operation Tomodachi, Minister Hiroyasu Izumi, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Japan, stated that “the people of Japan will never forget what all of the services represented here did”.
Years after Operation Tomodachi, a Japanese Women’s Society visited United States forces stationed on the Japanese home islands. They presented the leadership with leis made of 1,000 paper cranes (a Senbazuru) as a sign of deep admiration and respect for the U.S. military’s detailed coordination, level of provided assets and compassionate responses, all to help ‘tomodachi’ — a friend.
– Tim Devine