In a famous speech former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida gave at the National Defense Academy’s graduation ceremony in February 1957, he had insightful advice to give about joining the Self-Defense Forces.
“It is possible that many of you may finish your career at the SDF without ever being thanked or welcomed by the people . . . because it is only when our nation is facing crisis and confusion, when we are attacked by foreign forces or when necessity arises for you to embark on disaster relief missions, that the people will appreciate and praise the SDF.”
Yoshida’s point has never been so relevant as Japan greets with open arms the relief work undertaken by more than 100,000 of the nation’s 240,000 soldiers dispatched since the March 11 mega-quake and tsunami left more than 28,000 people dead or missing in eastern Japan.
The moss-green SDF uniform has become a fixture on TV screens as troops are seen carrying out search and rescue missions and other disaster relief activities.
Many of these are being carried out in tandem with military forces from the United States under Operation Tomodachi, named after the Japanese word for friend, and run out of some of the several military bases in Japan.
Nearly five times the number of SDF personnel have been dispatched than during the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, and 19,000 civilians have been rescued so far in the operation, which is taking place on a scale unseen in postwar Japan.
“The nation understood the importance of the SDF through their disaster relief activities in the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and now in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake, their presence has never been felt so strong,” said military analyst Kazuhisa Ogawa.
Footage of SDF helicopters attempting to drop water into the burning reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant has made a lasting impression, and 500 SDF personnel are still in the area operating water pumps to keep the reactors cool.
Media reports indicate that more people are showing interest in joining the SDF, although a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said no statistics were available to confirm that.
The SDF, preceded by the National Police Reserve, was established in 1954, two years after the Allied Occupation ended, and its existence has been controversial due to the Constitution.
The war-renouncing Article 9 states that Japan cannot use force to resolve international disputes and, for that matter, will not maintain land, sea, and air forces as well as other war potential. However, the government has claimed that the Constitution does not ban the maintenance of an armed force for self-defense, and SDF activities have expanded over the years.
Ogawa, who heads the think-tank Strategic Research Institute of International Change, said recruitment generally rises after high-profile missions.
Praise for its current work may help boost future defense budgets, he said.
Japan has kept military expenditures at only 1 percent of GDP, even though this is still a hefty amount considering the size of its economy.
“Rebuilding the disaster-stricken nation will obviously be a priority, but I believe people have understood the importance of the SDF, and may consider it beneficial to increase its spending and size,” Ogawa said.
As Yoshida pointed out half a century ago, the nation seems to be greeting the SDF’s work, as well as that of the U.S. forces in this time of crisis, with abundant praise.
“I’ve always had respect for the SDF, but the work they are doing now has enhanced my appreciation,” said Wakana Hagiwara, a 30-year-old Tokyo office worker who personally knows Maritime Self-Defense Force members involved in the search and rescue missions.
“When you consider the number of dead bodies they deal with, and the extreme conditions they must have to endure, I only have respect for them,” she said.
Ogawa of SRIIC said that while dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder remains an ongoing issue, he has spoken to an SDF general who was concerned that many of its members are experiencing a “high” from their relentless efforts.
Some, he said, are even refusing to rest when ordered and are “working until they fall.”
“It’s like a runner’s high, the idea that they are working for the good of the people, coupled by the gratitude they receive from the disaster victims; it seems to keep them going until they burn out,” Ogawa said.
Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said April 8 that since the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck the northeast coast March 11, the SDF has delivered 18,000 tons of drinking water, 1.9 million meals and enabled 190,000 survivors to bathe after weeks without a shower.
“The stress is building up among troops, and we need to think of how to properly rotate them. . . . We would like to create a system where they can maximize their potential in the long-term,” he said.
Kitazawa also expressed his gratitude to the 18,000 U.S. forces deployed for the joint effort.
A report Monday from the U.S. 7th fleet’s public affairs division said “the U.S. 7th Fleet flew over 160 search and relief sorties, flew 1,100 flight hours, delivered over 260 tons of Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief supplies and helped in the clearance of three ports at Hachinohe, Miyako and Oshima-Kesennuma.”
Other newspapers have reported more closely on the critical role being played by U.S. forces — especially in the clearing of Sendai Airport — and the pains they are taking to stay out of the media limelight. Yasuharu Ishizawa, professor of politics and media at Gakushuin Women’s College, said Operation Tomodachi was a success for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama in boosting the U.S. Army’s image in Japan and the sense that U.S. forces and the SDF could enhance ties through the joint operation.
“The Obama administration can say it has shown good faith, that it has done what it can for Japan,” Ishizawa said.
But while Ishizawa said the disaster and nuclear crisis has helped forge U.S.- Japan ties, this and the contentious issue of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, which has been a diplomatic thorn between the two nations for decades, was a different issue that the government’s of the two nations would have to continue negotiating.
Okinawa hosts 75 percent of the U.S. bases and facilities in Japan. Futenma is located in the densely populated city of Ginowan, and considered by some to be one of the most dangerous bases in the world in regards to civilian safety.
In response to strong residential demands to close the facility because of noise and health concerns, Japan and the U.S. struck a deal in 1996 to close the base. In 2006, the two countries agreed to move the air base elsewhere in Okinawa.
However, residents and local politicians want to kick the base out of the prefecture entirely.
“The importance of the U.S. presence in Japan has been felt, but this and the Futenma issue are separate,” Ishizawa said, explaining that the prolongeddebate was an issue that had to be dealt with on a separate level.
Yu Shimabukuro, a retailer working in Naha, Okinawa, echoed this sentiment.
“We have much appreciation toward the work the U.S. forces have done for us, but that doesn’t change our view that the Futenma base needs to be relocated outside Okinawa,” he said.
“Disaster relief efforts and the Futenma issue are two separate issues,” he said.