Friends of the Ground Self-Defense Force throughout Japan and the world were saddened to learn about the passing of Eiji Kimizuka, a retired four-star general who served as the Chief of Staff of the GSDF from 2011 to 2013 but perhaps was best known for leading the bilateral response to the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. He was 63.
He died Monday of lung cancer after recently being hospitalized. Earlier this month, I received an email from his wife telling me about his hospitalization “since the latter part of November,” but I did not realize it was so serious. I had written to him previously, as part of our long correspondence, this time to ask him some questions about Operation Tomodachi, the massive relief effort led by the U.S. in support of Japan, for a book I am writing. Unusually, it was several days before I got a response, and in this case, from his wife. He had kindly related the answers to her, and she passed them along.
I first met then-Maj. Gen. Kimizuka when he was the commanding general of the 1st Combined Brigade (now 15th Brigade) in Okinawa in summer 2004, immediately before I went on a sabbatical from Osaka University to work for the U.S. Marine Corps in Hawaii for one year. After serving as the head of the personnel division in Ichigaya, he moved to the Osaka area in July 2006 to serve as the chief of staff of Middle Army Headquarters and commander of Camp Itami. Our relationship grew during this time thanks to the proximity, but also due to his dedication to community relations.
He was promoted to lieutenant general after this and served as the commanding general of the 8th Division, followed by service as the vice president of the National Defense Academy, where my academic adviser, Dr. Iokibe Makoto, had become president. I was able to see him quite often in this connection as well. In July 2009, he became the 34th commanding general of Northeastern Army.
Twenty months later, the disaster hit. He had prepared his forces well, and had extraordinary relations with the local community, allowing the response to be comparatively smooth. His close relationship with his U.S. military counterparts was also a key ingredient to the success. When I arrived at Camp Sendai with the U.S. Marines as their political adviser in the forward command element we established within Joint Task Force-Tohoku, or JTF-TH, I felt as if I was rejoining an old friend on the one hand, but also deeply honored to be working under and for him. He, in turn, expressed his relief that I was there.
Kimizuka also had a relationship with the head of the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan, Lt. Gen. Kenneth J. Glueck Jr., who had recently arrived for his fourth tour in Japan. His previous time in Japan overlapped with Kimizuka’s in Okinawa; they were counterparts of similar organizations — the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Glueck’s case.
Kimizuka was a kind, thoughtful man, although some would say cautious, too. His morning and evening meetings, which often ran two hours each, in the command center ended with his sharing his thoughts or different pieces of information, both to raise morale as well as to instill lessons. He noted one evening about the Emperor’s March 16th message regarding the tragedy to the people of Japan, a message that included praise of the Self Defense Forces’ work. The message, as well as the noting of it, were both especially meaningful at that time when stress and fatigue were setting in among our Japanese colleagues.
He was attentive to details. He loved scuba diving, and diving deep. The same could be said of his approach to work — diving deep in the facts, contexts and nuances.
He could be stern, but he was never rude. I told him much later that I felt the meetings were almost like a seminar, where the professor summarized things at the end and imparted his or her words of wisdom. As an educator, it was meant as a compliment, although he may not have taken it that way.
He was not expected to become the top of the GSDF later that year, but his experience as a commander in the real world was needed and he was chosen. In addition, during Operation Tomodachi he saw firsthand the amphibious capabilities of the U.S. Marines-U.S. Navy team, something Japan desperately needed to develop. He also struggled with getting the SDF to operate jointly and could use tap into that experience to guide the GSDF in the post-3/11 era. Without a doubt, he moved the GSDF forward.
I recently arranged for him to give a talk on Nov. 6 at a university in the United States about the disaster. The former president of the Japan-America Society in that city wrote as it finished how “excellent” it was and what a “very impressive gentlemen” Kimizuka was.
I could not agree more. Rest in peace, general.
Robert D. Eldridge is the author of “Digging Deep: The Story of the United States Marine Corps and the Courageous Island of Oshima during and after Operation Tomodachi” to be published in Japanese by Shueisha, and the translator of “Megaquake: How Japan and the World Should Respond” (Potomac Books, 2015).