March 11 10 years on / Ex-SDF chief urges public to plan ahead for disasters

March 11 marked the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. The Yomiuri Shimbun spoke with Ryoichi Oriki, former chief of staff of the Joint Staff, and asked him to review the situation at the time to pass on lessons for the future. The following is excerpted from the interview.

At the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake, a combined maximum of about 107,000 personnel from the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense forces were mobilized at one time to the affected areas.

We were able to respond to this extent partly as a result of the criticism that our initial response to the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 was slow. Natural disasters frequently occurred in later years as well, and relevant legislation was created and cooperation reinforced between the SDF and local governments, heightening our awareness that once a disaster occurs, we should spring into action.

The toughest decision that I had to make as the chief of staff of the Joint Staff back then was when the nuclear accident occurred at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Initially, we were not only uninformed what was happening with the nuclear reactors, we were also short of information as to how the Prime Minister’s Office and TEPCO were trying to deal with it. Therefore, we were not aware of the seriousness of the situation, thinking that things would be somehow brought under control by TEPCO’s response.

Then on March 14, three days after the quake, the No. 3 reactor at the plant exploded, suddenly heightening our sense of crisis.

Not sharing information poses a threat in and of itself. U.S. forces were engaged in disaster relief activities via Operation Tomodachi (see below), with the Japanese people’s needs in mind, but the U.S. government was distrustful shortly after the nuclear accident, as there was not enough information coming from Japan about the accident. If that situation had continued, I think the Japan-U.S. alliance would have been shaken.

I still remember, amid these circumstances, being told over the phone by Adm. Mike Glenn Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. armed forces, that “the SDF must come to the front.”

U.S. forces seem to have believed that the SDF should come to the fore and completely control the situation, but U.S. forces and the SDF differ in terms of their authority and capabilities.

The Self-Defense Forces were initially tasked with overseeing the overall coordination, with police and fire-fighting units, of dumping water over the exploded reactor at the power plant. But the SFD’s task was to “coordinate,” not to “control.” To start with, the SDF’s knowledge and capabilities are limited with regard to nuclear power stations.

Strong determination

Even so, I was resolved that the SDF would take on the task at the final, critical juncture. On March 17, we dumped water on the spent nuclear fuel pool at the No. 3 reactor, using the Ground Defense Force’s helicopter capabilities. It was a dangerous mission, but I mobilized SDF personnel with a strong determination to somehow bring the situation under control.

The SDF had previously responded to disasters by feeling its way, which ultimately turned out well. But the SDF is not Doraemon, the magna and anime character with a “four-dimensional pocket,” capable of solving any problems no matter how difficult they may be. There are limits, for example, in terms of personnel and equipment. In parallel with dispatching personnel in times of disaster, we are also bound by the duties of defending the country and maintaining vigilance.

If massive damage occured simultaneously over an extensive area — for example, if a powerful earthquake occurred in the Nankai Trough — it would be difficult for us to focus on sending large units to concentrated areas, as we did at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

In whatever way needed, the SDF will go into action to rescue people. But I hope that members of the public, for their part, will consider self-help efforts to be fundamental, taking such steps as storing up goods for an emergency in normal times and taking part in disaster drills, thereby preparing for large-scale disasters.

Operation Tomodachi

A disaster relief activity undertaken by the U.S. forces to assist in areas hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Up to about 24,000 personnel, including servicemen, were deployed. In cooperation with the SDF, they engaged in the transport of goods, food, water and fuel, and in search and rescue activities for the disaster victims. They also cooperated in responding to the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Ryoichi Oriki, Former Chief of Staff, Joint Staff

Graduated from the National Defense Academy in 1972 and joined the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF). Having held such posts as chief of staff of the GSDF, he served as the chief of staff of the Joint Staff from March 2009 to January 2012. He is 71 years old.