Looking Back at Operation Tomadachi: The Key Role for the Japanese Self Defense Force


2013-02-19 When the brutal Tsunami hit Japan in 2011, the devastation was significant.  The threat from leakage of the nuclear plants was ever-present.  The challenge of restoring Japan in the face of significant damage was a daunting one.

Earlier we have looked at the challenge of shaping resilient organizations and the need for them in times of crisis.


In effect, the Japanese self-defense force rose to the fore to provided the kind of resilient organization which Japan needed to rise to the challenge.

And the US-Japanese military relationship was a key support for the performance of the Japanese SDF.

An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 25 picks up supplies from the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Matthew Perry during a vertical replenishment with the amphibious assault ship USS Essex. Essex, with the embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, is operating off the coast of Kesennuma in northeastern Japan in support of Operation Tomodachi. Credit: Navy Content Media Services, 4/2/11 

In many ways, the performance of the SDF in the context of the Tsunami created a turning point in post-war Japanese history.  The Japanese population realized that the SDF was not only effective but also necessary to the safety and security of Japan.

The joint operation of US forces with the Japanese SDF was called Operation Tomadachi.  This operation was an important effort to support the recovery of Japan.

The effort on the US side was wide ranging. 

(See the chronology of Operation Tomadachi below:)

Operation Tomadachi Chronology

A good overview on the operation was provided by The Japan Times and highlighted how the US forces assisted the Japanese SDF:

Operation Tomodachi was initiated by the U.S. Department of Defense in joint cooperation with Japanese authorities. 

The operation, which started March 12 and lasted until May 4, directly or indirectly involved nearly 24,000 U.S. service members, 189 aircraft and 24 naval ships, at a total cost of nearly $90 million. 

The aid efforts focused on the transport of relief supplies, Self-Defense Forces personnel and equipment, and the search of disaster zones for stranded victims. U.S. forces helped rescue about 20,000 people in the first week after the quake, and worked to restore transportation facilities such as Sendai Airport. 

“Operation Tomodachi was the first time SDF helicopters used U.S. aircraft carriers to respond to a crisis. The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier provided a platform for air operations as well as a refueling base for SDF and coast guard helicopters,” the Congressional Research Service said in a report released in June. 

“The USS Tortuga transported 90 SDF vehicles and nearly 300 SDF soldiers to northern Honshu for relief work,” noted the report, titled “Japan Earthquake 2011: U.S. Department of Defense Response.” 

Japanese security experts also gave Operation Tomodachi high marks. 

Speaking at a July seminar in Hawaii, Matake Kamiya, a professor of international relations at the National Defense Academy, effusively praised the operation, saying the U.S. military presence increased even as other overseas relief teams were fleeing Japan due to fears over the radiation spewing from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. 

“Operation Tomodachi has proven the Japan-U.S. alliance can function in an emergency in a well-coordinated manner. U.S. military personnel have proven to the fullest degree they are acting for the benefit of the Japanese people,” Kamiya said. 

Public opinion surveys showed Operation Tomodachi also gave bilateral relations a major boost. 

A June survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 85 percent of Japanese had a favorable opinion toward the U.S., the highest level in nearly a decade. 

The efforts by U.S. Marines to restore operations at Sendai Airport received particularly high publicity. The tsunami flooded the airport and the damage was so extensive the central government initially wrote off the facility. 

But the U.S. military, led by about 260 marines, immediately set to work with SDF troops to clean up the debris, and the first relief supplies began landing at the airport just four days after the quake struck. The airport reopened to commercial flights April 13. 

U.S. forces also helped clear wrecked ports, including Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture, Miyako in Iwate Prefecture and Oshima in Miyagi Prefecture. 

But Operation Tomodachi also included measures to deal with the unfolding nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant that may have grabbed fewer headlines but proved crucial. Officials from the U.S. Defense and Energy departments, as well from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, provided on-the-ground expertise, helped monitor food and water for radiation, and provided high-pressure water pumps, fire trucks and protection gear for the efforts to tame the crisis. 

In addition, the U.S. Navy provided two barges with 1.9 million liters of fresh water that was used to cool the power station’s three stricken reactors. And the Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force provided training to SDF troops operating in the vicinity of the facility. 

The U.S. also deployed Global Hawk unmanned aerial drones, which flew over the plant to monitor the reactors and collect data for the Japanese government. 

Experts from both countries generally agreed that Operation Tomodachi worked thanks to years of joint training, information sharing and coordination between U.S. and Japanese forces. The training was initiated in 1997, following a security cooperation agreement the previous year that took into account the lessons of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.


Recently, Second Line of Defense had a chance to discuss the crisis and the US response with an old Japanese hand who was the public affairs spokesman for the US 7th fleet at the time of the crisis in 2011.

SLD: Could you tell us about yourself and your interest in Japan?

Captain Jeff Davis: I’m a United States Navy Captain who is currently the Director of Public Affairs at the NORAD/NORTHCOM, North American Air Space Defense Command and United States Northern Command.

At the time of the event, I was the Director of Public Affairs at the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which is responsible for Naval operations in the Western Pacific.

I took Japanese when I was in college and taught English in Japan before I came into the Navy, and I lived and worked there before coming into the USN.  Since joining the Navy, I’ve done three different tours of duty there.

It’s a country that I’ve seen evolve and change over time and it’s a country that I love and that I was very impressed by the way that they came together following the Tsunami disaster.

SLD: How important was the role of the SDF in managing the response to the crisis?

Captain Jeff Davis: We certainly helped, but it was the performance of the SDF, which was central to recovery.

They went about doing the most difficult of the tasks.

The Japanese ground self-defense forces in particular went through the devastated areas pulling out the remains, looking for survivors, and were absolutely painstaking and performed incredibly difficult work in very difficult conditions.

We were greatly impressed by their performance, as were the Japanese people.

SLD: In terms of the US role, I think one important point for people to understand is how important the habitual relationships are, in this case, between the Japanese and the American forces so that when there is such a crisis, you have the kinds of habitual relationships to draw on and training so you can be effective in a crisis.

Captain Jeff Davis: That is a crucial point. Japan is an ally. An alliance is the most sacred bond of trust that two countries can have with each other and it’s one of only a handful of countries we have that with, with Japan.

When this occurred, there was never any hesitation or any doubt in anyone’s mind on the American side that we had to step up and assist.

It was not one of these situations where you see the action is being held back by diplomatic discussions or by a security council resolution or by a congressional debate.

There was none of that.

We just knew when it happened that we needed to go, and there was no question about that.

Because of that very close habitual relationship with Japan, in our case the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, we were able to pick up the phone and call them and begin working out details.

Where you need us, what can we do most effectively to help?

SLD: And being forward deployed I would assume was crucial as well?

Captain Jeff Davis: Absolutely.  In a crisis like that days of steaming time to get there really minimizes your usefulness.

The fact is that we were there.

And could the United States have come to Japan’s assistance if we didn’t have forces that were already forward deployed?

It would’ve taken a long time. We could have flown some stuff in but the sea platforms in particular can take weeks to move into position and the fact is we were there.

The Ronald Reagan was north of Guam when this occurred and it was just a matter of a day and a couple hours steaming time to be in position to provide assistance.

All of our ships in the forward deployed naval force were able to get underway and move.

You never know when the next crisis is going to come, whether it’s a man made catastrophe or a natural catastrophe, presence is the key element of readiness.

For an insightful Japanese paper reflecting on US-Japanese cooperation during the crisis, and ways ahead based on lessons learned see the following:

Japanese Paper on Joint Cooperation

See Lt. General Robling’s interview which highlights the centrality of persistent presence to US missions in the Pacific.


The video footage below shows the force at which the tsunami struck Japan’s coast.

In the fishing port of Miyako, in Iwate prefecture. 

The tsunami that followed the 8.9-magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc along a huge stretch of Japan’s north-east coast, sweeping far inland and devastating a number of towns and villages.

Editor’s Note:  We argued earlier that the US contribution provided an important supplement to the Japanese capability to provide for a resilient organizational response to the crisis.

In a recent conversation with senior Japanese officials involved in dealing with the recent Tsunami and reactor meltdown crisis, the officials discussed the significant challenge of recovery in the midst of a crisis.  “We were prepared for single instances of crisis, flood relieve, Tsunami recovery, nuclear reactor problems; we were not prepared for simultaneous incidents which created a collapse.  In shaping a response and recovery strategy, a key problem was an attempt to apply single incident plans to the crisis.  We focused initially on defining the crisis as a nuclear meltdown and tried to approach the crisis this way, but that only worsened the situation as the entire population in the core area hit by floods, etc. were panicked by the meltdown, but unable to move and to focus on their ability to have proper help to provide for tactical and strategic mobility.” 

According to these officials, it was crucial to be able to apply tools, which would buy the Japanese leadership with time to peel back the elements of the Onion in order to start the recovery process.  “We did not have the proper tools in place to allow us to move people and to restore confidence.” 

The US offered various types of aide in the situation, but the initial platform whereby aide came was in the form of carriers and amphibs to provide supplies for relief.  “At first we focused on direct relief, but soon came to realize that the sea bases provided significant alternative hubs to manage the movement of persons and to provide a sense of mobility and support to a population which hitherto felt trapped.  

In other words, the sea bases became instruments not simply of relief, but facilitated recovery and reconstruction.  They became much more than supply depots to help the endangered population; they became part of the infrastructure for recovery and reconstruction. Obviously, the aircraft aboard these ships, notably the helicopters, became part of the mobility team able to not supply but move people strained in the situation.  The sea base became a visible reality to the Japanese people of how to overcome the limits of an island nation facing such catastrophe.”