Civil-military lessons learned in the response to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake

Few disasters in memory compare to the Great East Japan Earthquake in terms of its scale and complexity. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck off the eastern coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, generated a massive tsunami that minutes later swept as far inland as six miles (10 kilometers) in some areas and triggered an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that resulted in the release of radioactive materials. This triad of disasters caused profound geographic and economic devastation and claimed nearly 16,000 lives, while more than 3,200 people remain missing, according to Japan’s National Police Agency.

As the contributors to this issue of Liaison point out, on their own, the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster would each have been a destructive event; together they formed an unprecedented challenge to national and international disaster response frameworks. For the host nation, long considered a model for disaster preparedness, it put to the test improvements the government had made to its response mechanisms as a result of previous devastating earthquakes. It also marked the most joint effort in the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ history, drawing together all branches of service. For many of the foreign governments and organizations that eagerly offered assistance, this was their first time supporting an advanced nation that was capable of managing most aspects of the disaster on its own. The cold weather conditions and the threat of nuclear radiation exposure were first-time operating conditions for many, as well. Added to these variables were challenges that are always present in major disaster response operations, chief among them the struggle to harmonize civilian and military efforts to enable the most effective response.

The occurrence of a disaster in such unusual circumstances creates a learning opportunity. At the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance, our mission is to enhance civil-military preparedness and response through collaborative partnerships, education and training, applied research, and the identification and sharing of lessons learned.
We consider our academic journal, Liaison, one of our key tools in accomplishing the latter. By capturing civil-military lessons learned in the response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, we hope to promote continued dialogue and action that will build on the successes as well as learn from the challenges in this disaster to strengthen civil-military coordination and enhance partner preparedness to respond to the next unthinkable event.
In this issue, contributors are divided into the three groups of responders traditionally identified in disaster response coordination mechanisms – the affected state, assisting states and the humanitarian community.

We are fortunate to have contributions from the Japanese Cabinet Office, as well as representatives of multiple Ministry of Defense offices. Because Japan was so well-equipped to deal with this disaster, it required minimal on-the-ground assistance from foreign countries. The largest exception was support from the U.S. military, which had some 38,000 troops in the country at the time of the disaster. One article reflects on the lessons learned by U.S. Forces Japan and U.S. Pacific Fleet in what was known as “Operation Tomodachi.” Representatives of responding Urban Search and Rescue teams from Australia and Switzerland have also contributed to this issue, complemented by an article on how one of Japan’s neighbors, the Republic of Korea, is taking measures to enhance its own preparedness for tsunamis. Finally, we hear from a cross-section of humanitarian responders, including the leader of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team in Japan. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement also offers lessons learned, along with the chief executive officer of one of the many non-governmental organizations involved in the response, and a volunteer who reflects on his experience working side-by-side with soldiers and civilians from around the world.

These contributors by no means represent the full range of all of the countries, organizations and individuals involved in the response to the Great East Japan Earthquake. But from their experiences emerge common themes about some of the most pressing challenges facing civil-military response operations, and solutions for how to address them, which are summarized in the Editor’s letter at the end of this issue.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that what happened in Japan is not likely to remain a unique scenario. The frequency and intensity of natural disasters and their corresponding secondary crises are growing around the world. No country is immune from such events, but some are certainly better prepared to deal with their consequences – Japan being among the very best. It is unsettling to think of what might happen if such a complex and powerful disaster were to occur elsewhere, but it is my hope that the lessons drawn from the contributors to this issue will help prepare all of us for more effective, coordinated civilian and military support to host nation-led disaster response operations.