SENDAI — In September 2009, I resigned my tenured faculty position at a Japanese national university to begin working for the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa. While at Osaka University, I had the opportunity to teach many talented Japanese and international students over the years both at the undergraduate and graduate school levels. Several went on to join the media.

I met one of those former students while I was in Miyagi Prefecture participating in the initial two weeks of “Operation Tomodachi,” the American contribution to the Tohoku earthquake relief efforts that now involves more than 20,000 military service members and other U.S. personnel. He is currently based in Sendai and works for a major Japanese news agency. He visited the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force’s Northeastern Army Headquarters, which is serving as the headquarters of the Joint Task Force set up to respond to the earthquake, and to observe and report on the Japan-U.S. Bilateral Coordination cell, which was established to coordinate the U.S. contribution to the Japanese efforts. I was one of the U.S. participants in the cell.

Afterward, I received a short note from him by e-mail. “I was so glad to see you the other day. Thank you for working so hard every day. I already began to feel it the other day when I came to report (on your meeting), but as a victim of the disaster, I want to say that I have never felt as strongly as I do now about the importance of the U.S. forces in Japan and thankful for all their contributions.”

I was surprised that he, as someone who had intensely studied the alliance during his schooling, seemed unaware of the various roles that the U.S. military in Japan serve. But I now realize that although we spent much time in our classes discussing precisely these issues, the topic — security, alliance affairs, the U.S. military in Japan — remains academic to most people unless they are directly involved through their work or feel some sort of direct connection.

Indeed, one could argue that the response to the March 11 Tohoku-Kanto earthquake and tsunami has validated Harvard professor Joseph’s Nye point made in the mid-1990s in an article in Foreign Affairs that “Security is like oxygen. You do not notice it until you begin to lose it.”

The nature of security, or more precisely the definition and discourse about security, has been evolving over the past two decades to include human security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. It is in these nontraditional roles that we have been seeing during this same time the U.S. military, and in particular the U.S. Marine Corps, plays a larger and larger role in the Asia-Pacific region.

This humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) role has been largely external to Japan. This region is fraught with natural disasters.

Indeed, some 60 percent of the world’s large-scale natural disasters happen here, in this “Ring of Fire.”

It was almost 20 years ago this spring, for example, that the Okinawa-based U.S. Marines led the international effort to provide relief to Bangladesh following the horrific cyclone of April 1991 in what was known as Operation Sea Angel. Readers may remember a similar effort in Bangladesh again in the fall of 2007 with Operation Sea Angel II.

Perhaps the most famous effort to provide HA/DR in recent times was Operation Unified Assistance following the massive magnitude 9.3 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The December 2004 catastrophe was the fifth most destructive earthquake in history, with more than 230,000 people killed.

The immediate response by the III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) and other U.S. military forces, however, working with the militaries, civilian agencies, and nongovernmental organizations of the affected countries and other nations, limited the misery and second-order effects of the disaster to the smallest amount possible and allowed for the recovery to begin.

In the six years since that response, the Okinawa-based U.S. Marine Corps, as the “Force in Readiness,” has responded to 10 significant HA/DR missions in this area of responsibility alone. Those operations include: the Pakistan Earthquake Response (October 2005-March 2006), Philippine Mudslide Response (March-April 2006), Indonesia Earthquake Response (May-June 2006), Legazpi Typhoon Recovery (March 2007), Solomon Islands Tsunami Response (April 2007), Sea Angel II Bangladesh, Caring Response Burma (May-June 2008), Taiwan Typhoon Relief (August 2009), Philippine Typhoon and Indonesian Earthquake Relief (October 2009), and the fall 2010 Philippine Typhoon response.

Col. Craig Q. Timberlake, the commander of 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (Forward), III MEF, in Sendai, explained in detail to a reporter following a visit to the governor of Miyagi Prefecture the mission that the U.S. is performing, and added that the U.S. military “also does windows.” What he meant was that U.S. forces will and can do just about anything to expedite the relief and recovery of the Tohoku area, working closely with the Japanese-led Joint Task Force.

HA/DR, in other words, is just one of the many capabilities the U.S. provides in support of its near 60-year alliance with Japan. Employing those capabilities in Japan at its request and working together in a real-world operational capacity now signals a new and important stage in this history and ever-deepening relationship.

It was a double-honor for this former university professor to have been involved in the still-ongoing relief operations in the Tohoku region: first to be directly helping the people of Japan such as my former student and his family, and second, to be working side-by-side during planning and actual relief operations with the U.S. Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen as they went about with some of the many things they do so well on behalf of the alliance to provide “oxygen” in the form of peace and stability to the Asia-Pacific region.

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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