US-Japan Relations Following Fukushima Relief Efforts

James Bai
January 28, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: U.S. service members and members of the Japan Self-Defense Force worked together to clean the debris from around the Minato Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Aichi, Japan. April 2, 2011. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On March 11th, 2011, an earthquake of magnitude reaching 9.0 wrought havoc onto the northern part of Japan. [1] The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station received most damage due to the earthquake and the tsunami, as the piping facility and the power supply went down. To this day, Tokyo Electric pumps 400 tons of water through the reactors to cool melted fuel that is too hot and radioactive to move. [2] The water picks up radioactivity and is stored in big containers to this day. So, it was no surprise when Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency upped the accident level from a five to a seven - equalling that of Chernobyl.

Relief Efforts

By the evening of March 11th, Defense Minister Kitazawa dispatched 50,000 Japanese Self-Defense Forces to aid in the relief efforts at the site of Great East Japan Earthquake. The number of SDF grew to 100,000 in a couple of days and by using its largest organized manpower in the country, they became capable of bringing aid and rescuing those affected by the disaster. [1] In correspondence with the SDF, US military conducted Operation Tomodachi, by which they rescued survivors and cleaned up debris in the affected areas as shown in Fig. 1. In the span of around two months, the relief involved 24,000 US service people, 90 million dollars and a whole lot of equipments. [3] However, instead of dealing with the boundaries of Fukushima, the operation only encompassed the area 80 km outside the radius of the accident.

Compared to other affected prefectures like Iwate and Miyagi, Fukushima was in a dearth of NGO volunteers who would aid in rescue and relief efforts. In order to keep the radiation level a secret, the Japanese government didn't allow many western NGOs to step foot into the area. Any experts from the International Energy Agency (IEA) with a gamma ray spectrometers that could measure radiation level were banned. [3] Also, as US issued an evacuation order for its nationals inside the 80 km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, less and less external relief efforts remained. [3] In addition, the international standards for radiation hindered many NGOs from giving aid to Fukushima.


US aid to the relief efforts may have improved Japan-US relations. [4] At least in part, the United States seemed to have grabbed a chance to rebuild ties with a crucial Asian ally that just a year ago seemed to be "flirting with pulling out of Washington's orbit". [5] Towards the end of 2011, Japan's Foreign Ministry attributed the high level of affability, totaling an unprecedented 82 percent, of Japanese people towards US following Operation Tomodachi. [4] In addition, the high level of US involvement in the efforts alleviated the tension in US base relocation disputes. The 90 million dollars US spent in the effort would de facto have to be paid through Japan's financial commitment to support American troops stationed in Japan. [4] By shrewdly utilizing the relief effort as a diplomatic tactic, the US secured its presence on Japanese soil and improved its image among Japanese people. [5]

© James Bai. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Irisawa, "The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake: A Report Of A Regional Hospital In Fukushima Prefecture Coping With The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster," Dig. Endosc. 24, Suppl. S1, 3 (2012).

[2] M. Rich, "Struggling With Japan’s Nuclear Waste, Six Years After Disaster," New York Times, 11 Mar 17.

[3] E. Johnston, "Operation Tomodachi a Huge Success, But Was It a One-Off?," Japan Times, 3 Mar 12.

[4] S. Basalia, "3.11 and the US-Japan Alliance: Building on Success for the Next Generation," Asia Policy, No. 17, 155 (January 2014).

[5] M. Fackler, "Rebuilding Lives and American Ties to Japan," New York Times, 22 Mar 11.