|Adm. Walsh salutes a Sendai base during Operation Tomodachi. Via.|
When the March 11 earthquake struck Japan, the commander of the 7th fleet of the U.S. navy was off the coast of Singapore. Without orders, he set a course for Honshu and within a short time every U.S. naval ship in the region was under way for Japan.
As U.S. Navy Admiral Patrick M. Walsh told a standing room-only audience at the Japan Society recently [watch the full video], it was the beginning of Operation Tomodachi--or Operation Friend in English.
“The real story here is in the power of the idea, the idea of tomodachi, the idea that represents who we are, where our relationship is and what it could be,” Walsh said.
As 59th Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Walsh oversaw the mission. For him, Operation Tomodachi went way beyond providing help to a nation in crisis; it cemented the U.S.-Japan alliance and highlighted the importance of understanding the geo-political challenges facing the Asia-Pacific region.
To appreciate the scale of Operation Tomodachi it helps to list a few numbers: there were 20 U.S. naval ships and 140 aircraft deployed to the area, and 19,703 U.S. marines and sailors took part. Many of the U.S. bases in Japan from the disputed Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, to Yokota Air base just west of Tokyo and Misawa Air base in Aomori were involved. They provided humanitarian aid including 246 tons of food and 21 million gallons of water. They also helped to contain the nuclear disaster and deal with the “emotionally debilitating” aftershocks. It was an operation that called upon all the U.S. armed forces’ logistical and technical skills but that also required immense compassion and diplomacy.
“From the Japanese perspective, it was very important that the Self Defense Force be the face that deals with the immediate concerns of the people in the region,” Walsh said. “What they needed the U.S. to do was be in support whether providing water or supplies or clearing ports or roads.”
Walsh conjured an emblematic image of how this worked on each side. “A U.S. Marine that’s pushing a broom, cleaning a school, while the Self Defense Force, 100,000 mobilized, is out looking for the missing and dealing with the remains.”
The Operation also required what Walsh called “consequence management” in the light of the “game-changing” information about the spread of radiation from the nuclear disaster. This meant U.S. forces were not only dispensing aid but were dealing with a contaminated environment. What or how much information to give the public had a much larger significance than in a natural disaster. “We had to prepare the population so that people knew whether or not to be excited or whether or not the crisis was getting worse.”
All this collaboration took place against the background of an ongoing discussion of the future of U.S. bases in Okinawa. The Admiral deferred to U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John V.Roos, to assess whether that process would now be easier following Operation Tomodachi. The Ambassador said that the approval rating of the U.S. in Japan jumped to nearly 95 per cent after Operation Tomodachi. “Wherever I travel in Japan people are very appreciative, but we’ve never been under the illusion that that would solve all problems.”
Admiral Walsh meanwhile was keen to stress that Operation Tomodachi was never perceived as being linked to the base issue. “Wouldn’t that be awful in that we come to help and yet there’s a quid pro quo,” he said. “We wouldn’t be genuine friends.”
Walsh said that the collaboration exhibited in Operation Tomodachi is essential to face challenges in the Asia-Pacific region. The mission’s success depended in part on the U.S. armed forces deep knowledge and experience of the region.
To deal with the ever-changing horizons, the U.S. has a secret weapon – its diverse staff. Admiral Walsh proudly told how Lee Kuan Yew had asked if the navy brought translators on their missions in Asia. “I answered yes we do, but these are native speakers who wear our uniform.” He said U.S. ships now have commanders who were born in India, Cambodia and Vietnam. Indeed, Japanese-speaking U.S. military staff suggested the name Operation Tomodachi.
During his presentation, Admiral Walsh showed an aerial picture of a stretch of coast in Japan where someone had etched the message “Thank you U.S.A” in huge letters. Walsh was humbled by this gesture and felt rather that the U.S. should be thanking Japan. “We grow from this experience, we learn from this and I think we become better friends.”
Hindell was BBC Tokyo bureau chief and Daily Telegraph Tokyo correspondent and is now based in New York. Past reports include, Why Japan May Surprise the World: Rebirth after the Tohoku Quake, Lawson's Business Strategy and Response to the Quake, and Joichi Ito: Open Networks And Hacker Spaces Can Save The World.