It’s seldom a provincial civil defence chief has to face a domestic crisis of apocalyptic proportions. As commanding general of the Northeastern Army for Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) – a regional head of the army wing of the nation’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) – Eiji Kimizuka was charged with coordinating the response to the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated swathes of Japan’s northeastern coastline in March 2011. From his headquarters in Sendai, General Kimizuka masterminded the dispatch of a national integrated force of 100,000 troops to deal with the disaster and oversaw the sdf’s biggest joint mobilisation since its creation in 1954. His efforts received unprecedented approval ratings; months after the disaster, some 82 per cent of the Japanese public said they approved of the troops’ response. They also secured him a promotion. In August 2011, General Kimizuka was appointed to the number one slot chief of staff of the GSDF.
He spoke to Monocle from the inner sanctum of his offices in the heart of the Ministry of Defense complex in Tokyo.
Monocle: The Ground Self Defense Force has a unique, largely domestic remit. What’s the role of the gsdf and how has it shifted over the past decade?
Eiji Kimizuka: We are involved in defending the country. We have to protect our land and the people. Besides that, we have other roles such as supplying disaster operations to help victims and providing assistance during events such as the Olympic games. In Japan we have many disasters, for example the big earthquake and tsunami of 11 March. We also have typhoons in summer and in winter, problems with snowfall. Over the past decade, the weight has been shifting more towards peacekeeping [with recent missions including Haiti, East Timor and Sudan] and disaster rescue roles.
M: The gsdf has one of the most sophisticated disaster relief capabilities in the world. What lessons did you learn from the Kobe earthquake in 1995?
EK: The Hanshin earthquake in Kobe hit an urban area of the city. At that time, there was no prescribed role involving the immediate dispatch of forces to work on such disasters. So the primary action on this disaster was delayed and there were many victims because of that. After that, the Diet [Japan’s parliament] amended the law to allow the autonomous dispatch of SDF troops after a disaster whenever necessary. So this time, the sdf were able to respond quickly because of previous experiences and this change of the law proved to be very positive.
M: Where were you on 11 March when the earthquake struck?
EK: I was in my office at the Sendai headquarters because I was then commander of the Northeastern Army. The earthquake was so big it continued for three minutes. We immediately issued an emergency call order to gather all the members in that group – about 20,000 staff in total – and take action.
M: Japan’s largest joint mobilisation ensued. What were the biggest challenges in launching a disaster relief operation on such a scale?
EK: We had been preparing for something much smaller. In addition to our 20,000 staff members, we were thinking of maybe having to find 1,000 or 2,000 in addition from other areas. But with this scale disaster, that clearly wasn’t enough. The prime minister decided the scale of 100,000 members and he assigned that task to me. It was the first time in the history of Japan’s SDF that we had created an integrated force of more than 100,000 joint members. The biggest challenge was the fact that nobody had ever done this before. There were no manuals, nothing I could learn from the past. There was no path in front of us. This is the first time we have done this and whatever we did would be recorded in the past behind us to be seen by future generations.
M: One year on, how do you think your troops have coped with the aftermath of such a crisis?
EK: One big concern we have is the mental health of our staff members, because they worked in such a severe environment for such a long time, so they have been very stressed, both physically and mentally. After the earthquake, we formed a special team of mental health specialists to deal with those with health issues, from high-ranking officers to soldiers. One big pressure facing commanders was making decisions over where to send troops to help, because the disaster zone was so big. Some invariably asked themselves whether they could have saved more lives if they had visited other areas first. Soldiers were also collecting dead bodies every day and in some instances, found themselves recovering the bodies of their own family members, their mother or wife or children. Some have flashbacks. It was very difficult for their mental health.
M: The tsunami also caused a nuclear emergency in Fukushima. How did the gsdf respond to that emergency?
EK: We had a responsibility for residents in the area. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated. Now, we are also helping with the radiation clean-up. Just today, about 30 minutes ago, I ordered over the phone for 900 soldiers to start the radiation clean-up of areas in Fukushima.
M: How do you feel the disaster has affected the Japanese national psyche? Has the country’s character changed a great deal as a result of 11 March?
EK: The way people think is different. We realise we have to be prepared for the worst case scenario now. People have rediscovered that family ties are very precious and important to them, even when there is no disaster. In terms of the future, everyone’s expectations of the SDF are very high – they think, “they can help us, they can do everything,” – now we face the challenge of meeting their expectations.
Eiji Kimizuka’s Curriculum vitae
1952: Born in Tokyo
1976: Graduated from the National Defense Academy. Enlistment
1995: Chief of Exercise Section, Training Division, Education and Training Department Ground Staff Office
2005: Director, Personnel Department, Ground Staff Office
2008: Vice president, National Defense Academy
2009: Commanding general, Northeastern Army
2011: Chief of staff of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force