When a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2011, U.S.-Japan relations were stable but still recovering from a difficult period in 2009-2010. The massive and immediate relief provided by the United States following the March 11 disaster bolstered the relationship further.
March 2011 “Triple Disaster”
On March 11, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake jolted a wide swath of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. The quake, with an epicenter located about 230 miles northeast of Tokyo, generated a tsunami that pounded Honshu’s northeastern coast, causing widespread destruction in Miyagi, Iwate, Ibaraki, and Fukushima prefectures. Six months after the disaster, over 15,000 deaths have been confirmed, with over 4,000 missing and likely to be included in the final death toll. It appears that the tsunami, rather than the earthquake, caused nearly all the deaths. Entire towns were washed away; over 500,000 homes and other buildings, as well as around 3,600 roads were damaged or destroyed. Up to half a million Japanese were displaced; six months later, around 80,000 people regained homeless, housed in temporary shelters.
Damage to several reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant complex led the government to declare a nuclear emergency and evacuate nearly 80,000 residents within a 20 kilometer radius due to dangerous radiation levels. The plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has claimed that it will fully shut down the plant by the end of 2011, but is still struggling to control further radiation release. In late May, TEPCO officials acknowledged that the damage to fuel rods inside multiple reactors was worse than initially thought.
Secret Nuclear Agreement
Early in the DPJ rule, a former vice foreign minister disclosed a secret agreement signed in the 1960s between Tokyo and Washington that tacitly allowed the United States to transit nuclear weapons through Japan without prior approval.
The practice was in clear violation of the terms of the 1960 bilateral security treaty and Japan’s three non-nuclear principles (not to possess, produce, or transit nuclear weapons on Japanese territory). Japanese officials who had knowledge of the practice have consistently denied, even in Diet testimony, that it took place.
The controversy has raised questions about the integrity of Japan’s non-nuclear principles as well as the apparent lack of transparency in the government’s decision-making process.
An experts panel convened by the DPJ reported in March 2010 confirmed this tacit agreement had existed.
In April 2010, Foreign Minister Okada apologized for the past governments’ policy and reaffirmed Japan’s three non-nuclear principles policy.
Japan’s Nuclear “Village”
The Fukushima crisis has thrown a spotlight on Japan’s “nuclear village,” consisting of the power industry, nuclear regulators, bureaucrats overseeing the industry, the political establishment, and even the courts. Many in Japan believe that over the decades, a culture of collusion supporting nuclear power has emerged among these groups. In particular, Japan’s nuclear regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), is part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), the ministry charged with promoting nuclear power. Officials are often transferred between NISA and METI’s nuclear promotion divisions, leading to accusations that the lines between policing and supporting the nuclear power industry were often blurred. In a May 18 press conference, Prime Minister Kan reportedly called for NISA to be made more
independent from METI, and said a forthcoming investigative committee will explore “drastic reform” of Japan’s nuclear oversight system.
Another conflict of interest stems from the practice known as amakudari (descent from heaven), in which high-level METI officials routinely receive senior posts in one of Japan’s 10 power utilities, with the more senior officials generally securing positions at TEPCO.
The DPJ came into power in 2009 promising to limit the use of amakudari, but it is not clear that its efforts to fulfill its campaign promises have had many systemic effects, particularly in the power sector.
Separately, in a move that was interpreted as a sign his government will act more forcefully against the power industry and its supporters, Kan in mid-May took the unusual step of ordering the Chubu Electric Power Company to suspend operations at the coastal Hamaoka nuclear plant about 120 miles southwest of Tokyo until greater disaster contingency measures can be taken.
According to many scientists, the plant is located directly above an active earthquake zone.
TEPCO has come under severe criticism for not revealing information quickly or completely, and for not offering adequate compensation to those who have been affected by the Fukushima Daiichi crisis. Even before March 11, the company was under a cloud of suspicion for several accidents and scandals, including faking safety reports, over the past two decades.
U.S.-Japan Alliance Performance
As the crisis surrounding the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility intensified, the United States stepped up efforts to assist the government of Japan. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense all contributed assistance to help Japan deal with the nuclear crisis. Efforts included on-the-ground expertise, decontamination of assets, monitoring of contamination of food and water, aerial detection capability, high-pressure water pumps, fire trucks, and protective gear from radioactivity. The Marines’ Chemical and Biological Incident Response Force (C-BIRF) also provided training to the Japanese SDF forces operating in the area of the stricken reactor.
March 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami: U.S.-Japan Alliance Performance
DOD’s relief effort was designated “Operation Tomodachi,” using the Japanese word for “friend.” U.S. airlift capability was particularly valuable in reaching survivors in the devastated areas. U.S. efforts focused heavily on transport of relief supplies, SDF personnel and equipment; surveillance of the affected area to search for stranded victims; and restoration of critical infrastructure, such as damaged airfields, in order to sustain operations. The U.S. airbase Misawa, located in Aomori prefecture in northeastern Japan, was shaken violently by the earthquake but escaped with only minor damage. The facility was used as a forward operating base for both U.S. and SDF forces.
Years of joint training and many interoperable assets facilitated the integrated alliance effort.
Operation Tomodachi was the first time that SDF helicopters used U.S. aircraft carriers to respond to a crisis. The USS Ronald Reagan carrier provided a platform for air operations as well as a refueling base for Japanese SDF and Coast Guard helicopters. Other U.S. vessels transported SDF troops and equipment to the disaster-stricken areas, such as the USS Tortuga, which left the dock at the U.S. Naval Base in Sasebo to pick up 90 SDF vehicles and nearly 300 SDF soldiers from the northern island of Hokkaido to transport them to northern Honshu for relief work. After delivery, it served as a mobile operating base for helicopter missions. Communication between the allied forces functioned effectively, according to military observers.
For the first time, U.S. military units operated under Japanese command in actual operations. Specifically dedicated liaison officers helped to smooth communication; three Marine SDF officers served on board the USS Reagan, parallel to three U.S. Navy liaison officers on the JS Hyuga, a Japanese vessel. A small group of Japanese soldiers coordinated relief efforts between the civilian Sendai airport authority and the U.S. Marines helping to reopen the devastated runways. Although the U.S. military played a critical role, the Americans were careful to emphasize that the Japanese authorities were in the lead.
One area in which U.S. troops played a key role was the re-opening of airfields in order to allow more supplies to flow to the affected areas. Sendai’s airport appeared devastated in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake; a day after the tsunami struck, it was still under eight feet of water.
An Okinawa-based U.S. Special Operations Group that specializes in establishing forward supply bases in war-torn areas performed the initial work of removing debris, including over 5,000 cars that had washed onto the runways, allowing other aircraft to land. Some 260 Marines worked side by side with Japanese troops. The airport began receiving relief supplies on March 15, and was re-opened to commercial flights on April 13.
- March 29th, 2011 – Has TEPCO-NISA determined extent of damage to floors around spent fuel pool? (enformable.com)
- March 31st, 2011 – Six US Nuclear Power Plants under intensive review after Fukushima – Why these six? (enformable.com)
- June 2011 – Fukushima Nuclear Complex Severe Accident Worker Dose Management (enformable.com)
- April 2011 – Risk versus Concern – Public Health Messaging of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Incident (enformable.com)
- March 31st, 2011 – RE: Why are there no emergency diesels in U.S. nuclear power plants? (enformable.com)
- March 11th, 2011 – NRC Was Getting “Realtime” Information From NISA and JNES – Most Recent Information Forwarded to NSIR (enformable.com)