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Immediately following the tragic earthquake and tsunami on March 11 in the Tohoku region, U.S. military forces in Japan began sending supplies, equipment, and personnel to the devastated area to assist in the relief operations known as “Operation Tomodachi.”

We are still in the middle of this large effort to support the Japanese people through its government and the Japanese Joint Task Force, but some of us participating in the relief operations are already accumulating lessons learned and thinking about the future.

One of those lessons learned, which I identified years ago in a published paper, is the need to increase the involvement of the U.S. military in domestic disaster exercises here in Japan. There are only a few prefectures, such as Tokyo and Shizuoka, that include elements of the Japan-based U.S. military in their exercises.

This is not surprising as local Japanese authorities have been reluctant in the past to include their own Self-Defense Forces. However, the reality set in — especially after the January 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake — that natural disasters quickly overtax the capabilities of local authorities to respond and that the SDF needs to be involved.

This catastrophe, which involved a magnitude-9.0 earthquake (and thousands of aftershocks), a massive tsunami and problems with the nuclear reactors, has shown more than ever that devastation knows no administrative borders. Hundreds of communities in almost 10 prefectures have been affected. Many different layers of the bureaucracy — at the local, prefectural and national level — are involved, and because of the time necessary to navigate and coordinate the various jurisdictions, quick responses are often not possible.

Despite the magnitude of this disaster and the number of lives lost, I think it is safe to say that this was just a warning of things to come. We will likely see more major catastrophes such as this one in the future, and perhaps in more heavily populated areas such as Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka.

The earthquake may not be as strong as a magnitude 9, but it could easily do as much or more damage depending on where it strikes especially in light of the irony that the more modernized countries become, the more fragile they sometimes are. This likelihood therefore makes it critically important that new approaches to disaster preparation and relief be undertaken.

The 1995 Kobe earthquake was a serious wakeup call for Japanese society and its crisis-management system. Existing laws were reviewed and new procedures established. Most important, however, was the change in the mindset that it is important both to prepare and to respond quickly and effectively to a large-scale disaster.

The magnitude of this disaster will likely have the same effect. It is for this reason that I would like to propose first and foremost that Japan and the United States take advantage of this tragedy to sign a mutual support and assistance agreement on natural disasters, and then to conduct exercises to help develop the patterns of cooperation and shared expertise that would pay off if either country (or a third country or region) were affected.

The agreement could be called the Mutual Assistance and Support Agreement in Disasters (MASAD). The essence of the agreement would be that U.S. and Japanese forces would come to each other’s aid in the event of a large-scale disaster that goes beyond the capabilities of either country.

The agreement should be signed by the president and prime minister, and annual bilateral meetings between the military and civilian authorities should be held to regularly update each other’s planning, disaster assessments, and latest response capabilities/lessons learned. Ideally, it could form the framework of a structured regional response framework, with many countries participating and best practices shared.

In order to raise the capabilities and levels of cooperation between the Japanese and U.S. militaries in responding to disasters, bilateral exercises should be held (hopefully, the sooner the better) that consider scenarios such as a Tokai, Tonankai, and/or Nankai earthquake and possible tsunami in order to quickly identify opportunities and challenges to U.S. support of Japan’s disaster response. Similar exercises could be done in the U.S. as well.

These exercises should include the participation of local authorities at the appropriate time. Moreover, lessons should be learned from other major disaster responses, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and this one. International and regional organizations, such as the Kobe-based Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution as well as the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OCHA, could be involved in educating responders and planners.

Equally important is to involve the U.S. military and civilian agencies in the regional disaster preparedness exercises at the prefectural level here in Japan, either at the observer level or better yet in operational capacity.

Human beings will never fully be able to stand up to nature’s ravages, but it is important that at least the U.S. and Japan stand together. A mutual agreement to formalize this new level of cooperation, and civil-military exercises at all levels to strengthen this relationship is necessary now more than ever.

Robert D. Eldridge is deputy assistant chief of staff at the community policy, planning and liaison office, widely known as G5, of the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa.

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