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Like 2021, the year 1951 was one of typhoons, heavy rain, flooding and landslides. But a big difference was the ability of the Self-Defense Forces, Japan’s postwar military, to respond to the emergencies.

“Ability” here does not refer to willingness, or capability, but to the legal framework and political support for relief operations to be undertaken in the first place. Today, it is almost a given that the SDF will be called upon to assist local communities and prefectures after a disaster. Indeed, it has become a burden of sorts for the SDF as they are now the “go-to guys” for all sorts of missions. But, 70 years ago, it was basically taboo for them to be involved.

Some readers will even remember the reluctance in utilizing the SDF after the Great Hanshin Earthquake as late as January 1995. Old habits of “fear of the military” died hard. The delays were also caused by poor crisis management and stove-piped thinking, but that is a discussion for another time.

The SDF, established in July 1954, has gotten a lot of experience over the past seven decades in disaster response, from not only heavy rains, flooding, landslides, typhoons, earthquakes and tsunami, but also to responding to nuclear disasters, handling clean-ups after swine and bird flu outbreaks and noncombatant evacuations. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the SDF has even been mobilized for quarantining and assisting in establishing and operating vaccination sites. The list continues to grow.

The SDF has even been sent abroad numerous times for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, including the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed approximately 230,000 people; the 2005 Pakistan earthquake (approximately 75,000 deaths); and the 2013 Yolanda Typhoon in the Philippines (6,350 deaths with another 1,770 missing).

Typhoon No. 15 (Typhoon Ruth) on Oct. 14, 1951, was nowhere near as bad, although it caused 945 people to die or go missing. In any case, it was destructive enough for the governor of the hardest hit area, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to request the help of a nearby unit of the National Police Reserves (NPR), the name of the SDF’s predecessor organization, located at Camp Ozuki. (Technically, the National Safety Forces, established in October 1952, preceded the SDF. The NPR, established in July 1950, preceded the NSF.)

This operation, interestingly, was not the first time for forces to be dispatched. A few months earlier in July 1951, a flood struck Fukuchiyama City in Kyoto Prefecture. The commander of the NPR camp immediately answered the mayor’s request to respond to the disaster, and the community, which was the first city to invite the NPR to establish a base, was very happy with the aid provided.

While seemingly innocuous enough, upon hearing the reports, Masaharu Gotoda, a senior police agency official who helped create the NPR (and would later become a 10-time Cabinet minister), told NPR Director General Keikichi Masuhara that the decision by the commander to dispatch his units “exceeded his authority.”

Namely, in order to promote the postwar policy of civilian control, Article 3 of the August 1950 NPR Order required the NPR to “…conduct its duties according to the prime minister’s orders (naikaku soridaijin no mei o uke kodo suru mono to suru).” Because the Fukuchiyama commander did not follow this instruction — to wait for the approval of the prime minister — he was punished and the policy reinforced among members of the NPR.

As a result, the NPR became hesitant about responding to disasters even in the wake of Typhoon Ruth. Because of this, it was actually Allied occupation forces at Iwakuni Air Base in Yamaguchi Prefecture that provided the initial relief after Ruth.

Within the NPR, however, there was concern about the damage, and the leadership of the Oita Prefecture-based 11th Regiment, which had forces at Camp Ozuki in Yamaguchi, appealed to its higher command, the 4th Region Headquarters, located in Fukuoka Prefecture, by sending its deputy regimental commander by train with photos in hand of the damage to meet with the general.

Even then, this officer was rebuffed by the headquarters staff, being told the decision had already been made not to dispatch any personnel. The officer waited until the end of the day and made one final request to Lt. Gen. Takeo Tsutsui to request the prime minister to approve the dispatch. Moved by the photos and appeal, Tsutsui agreed.

Tsutsui, who would later become the first Ground Self-Defense Force chief of staff, was a native of Wakayama Prefecture, which has had its share of significant natural disasters. A graduate of the University of Tokyo (like the current chief of staff, Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida), Tsutsui had been a civil servant his entire career with experience in governing. He probably imagined what Yamaguchi Gov. Tanaka Tatsuo was going through at the time.

Tsutsui telephoned Gen. Keizo Hayashi, head of the General Group in Tokyo, to request permission for the dispatch. This was relayed to Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsuo Okazaki and then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who gave his blessing and issued the order. Eventually, the 11th Regiment was able to deploy two units of 300 personnel on Oct. 21, a week after the original disaster.

Their efforts to restore road and transport needed items, while belated, were greatly appreciated locally. The Yamaguchi Prefectural Assembly passed a vote of thanks as well.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Yoshida invited Tsutsui and Gen. Kan Omori, the commanding general of the 3rd Region (today’s Middle Army Headquarters), which also provided forces, to a lunch at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Tokyo to express his appreciation for the relief operations as well as, in the words of a leading specialist on the use of the SDF in disaster response in the postwar, “adherence to civilian-control procedures.” As such, the October 1951 dispatch became the first officially recognized one.

While the response to Ruth was slow, the procedures were followed, whereas in the earlier flooding in Kyoto, the response was rapid but the procedures weren’t followed. As Tomoaki Murakami, the aforementioned leading specialist noted in the definitive study of this history, “This period served as a time to test if the NPR could conduct such missions while acknowledging and following civilian control.”

It is not just Japan where such tension exists in government. The important thing is to be prepared ahead of time, so that no roadblocks that could or should have been anticipated get in the way. Eventually, revised NPR regulations in 1952 and changes to the 1954 SDF Law over time allowed Japanese forces to respond more easily and come to be true experts in this field as well. They have dispatched thousands of times, although each disaster tends to be unique, thus necessitating flexibility in thinking, refining procedures and constantly improving skills.

Robert D. Eldridge served as the political adviser to the forward command of U.S. Forces Japan in Sendai during Operation Tomodachi in March 2011. He is the co-author and editor of “The Ground Self-Defense Force: Search for Legitimacy, Japan’s Military Might, The Japan Self-Defense Forces Law, and Japan’s Military Power.”

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