Events Helping a Friend in Need: An Insider’s View of the U.S. Response to Japan’s 2011 Triple Disaster

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Helping a Friend in Need: An Insider’s View of the U.S. Response to Japan’s 2011 Triple Disaster

March 5, 2020 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

(L-R) Ambassador Kazutoshi Aikawa, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Japan in the USA; Mr. Jim Heller, Director, Office of Japanese Affairs, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Ambassador James Zumwalt (Ret.) Distinguished Senior Fellow (Non-Resident), SPFUSA; Ms. Cindy Wee, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the Republic of Singapore; Dr. Satohiro Akimoto Chairman of the Board and President, SPFUSA


Helping a Friend in Need: An Insider’s View of the U.S. Response to Japan’s 2011 Triple Disaster 

On March 5, 2020, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (Sasakawa USA) welcomed our Distinguished Senior Fellow (Non-Resident) Ambassador James Zumwalt to deliver a talk on, “Helping a Friend in Need: An Insider’s View of the U.S. Response to Japan’s 2011 Triple Disaster.” This talk was presented through SPFUSA’s Policy Lunch series. Attendees included distinguished guests from the Washington, D.C. diplomatic corps, academia, business, and the media. Sasakawa USA’s Chairman and President, Dr. Satohiro Akimoto gave opening remarks and moderated the Q&A session.

Sasakawa USA hosted the luncheon to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the seabed off Japan’s northeast coast on March 11, 2011. The March 11th earthquake and the resulting destructive tsunamis resulted in over 22,000 deaths, left 400,000 persons homeless, and caused $300 billion dollars of property damage. The following day, as Japan struggled to manage this unexpected humanitarian crisis, Japan declared a nuclear disaster at two large nuclear power plants.

At the luncheon, Ambassador Zumwalt spoke about his experience serving as the Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy Tokyo and coordinating the U.S. government’s civilian response to the disaster. His remarks were an amended version of talks he’s given to the U.S. Department of State’s Disaster Training Program, as a case study on how embassies have dealt with crises. Ambassador Zumwalt shared some of his personal memories coordinating the U.S. Embassy Tokyo’s response and lessons learned that are still applicable today.

When the earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011, Ambassador Zumwalt vividly recalled that he was at Iikura House in Tokyo. He was in a meeting with then Director General Shinsuke Sugiyama—now Japanese Ambassador to the United States of America—when the building started shaking. As earthquakes were common in Japan, they initially ignored the tremors. Eventually, they took shelter underneath a sturdy table as they began to realize that the earthquake was different than any others they had experienced. The former topic of conversation was put sharply into context as they began wondering if they would live through the experience. They ended the meeting once the tremors subsided. During the drive back to the U.S. Embassy Tokyo, Ambassador Zumwalt began to realize the gravity of the situation. Despite the cold weather in March, he could see many people remaining outside even without warm clothing as they were unsure if it was safe to return to their buildings.

Upon his return to the U.S. Embassy Tokyo, Ambassador Zumwalt remembered witnessing a similar scene in their parking lot. The U.S. Embassy Tokyo recently held a fire drill, so staff knew how to evacuate the building safely. Different sections assembled in specific parts of the embassy grounds, while the floor wardens checked off names. This preparedness enabled them to quickly establish the safety of all their employees. It became one of the main lessons that Ambassador Zumwalt shared at the end of his talk.

To respond to the crisis, Ambassador Zumwalt highlighted three concentric circles of populations the U.S. Embassy Tokyo focused on during the disaster. These circles were not sequential as they were addressed simultaneously throughout the crisis.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Response – Three Concentric Circles

1. Concern for embassy staff and family members:

The first concentric circle focused on establishing the safety and whereabouts of embassy employees and their families. Ambassador Zumwalt compared this guidance to the type of emergency procedures given on airplanes. During flights, attendants teach you to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. Although it seems selfish, it makes sense. Unless you’re in a safe condition, you are not going to be able to help others. Thanks to the earlier fire drill, the U.S. Embassy Tokyo was able to ascertain the safety of the ones who were in the building right away. It took a little longer to account for the few people who were away on business, but they were able to quickly determine the safety of employees.

The second part of the circle was the concern for U.S. Embassy staff’s family members and their children. Due to the city’s geography, there were children attending 14 different schools around Tokyo –some far away from the U.S. Embassy. For obvious reasons, parents were quite concerned about the security and safety of their children. Fortunately, the previous year the U.S. Embassy Tokyo had installed two-way radios on all the school buses that transported embassy children. They also trained the drivers on how to communicate using the radios. Within two hours, the U.S. Embassy Tokyo received reports of every child’s safety and whereabouts although it still took many hours for all the buses to return. The last bus returned at 1am in the morning after the 2pm earthquake. Another lesson learned was that children get hungry. Most of the buses ended up pulling off the crowded roads to stop at McDonald’s or someplace similar. Ambassador Zumwalt recalled hearing about the kids pooling their money so everyone could buy something to eat. He shared that he was proud of their resourcefulness.

While there were very few casualties in Tokyo due to the excellent building codes, the earthquake caused some some visible cracks in the U.S. Embassy’s structure. As a result, they were initially unsure if it was safe to continue working inside. They decided to open their emergency command center until they could assess the security and safety of the embassy building. The U.S. Department of State sent building engineers on Saturday evening, who were able to determine that the cracks were cosmetic and not structural in nature. By Monday morning, they were able to re-open the U.S. Embassy Tokyo and provide a safe working environment for their employees. In the meantime, the administrative section set-up computers, satellite phones, desks, and other essential equipment in the housing compound near the embassy. The consular section also moved to the new working space to start fielding phone calls about the welfare and whereabouts of American citizens. The embassy staff managed to continue their essential operations even though they were working in a makeshift space. Ambassador Zumwalt noted that while they were able to maintain their communications with Washington, it was difficult to communicate with anyone in Japan immediately after the earthquake. The Consulates reported the safety of all their employees to Washington, and Washington had to relay that information to the U.S. Embassy Tokyo.

2. Concern for American citizens:

The second concentric circle was to establish the welfare of American citizens in Japan. This is essentially the primary responsibility of any embassy abroad. As Japan is considered a safe country with a high-quality communications infrastructure, Americans living there do not typically need a lot of help from the U.S. government. In a typical year, the U.S. Embassy Tokyo would open approximately 300 “welfare and whereabouts” cases from concerned family or friends. While the U.S. Embassy generally didn’t send personnel out, they were able to contact the local police to assist in locating the person. After March 11th, the U.S. Embassy Tokyo received over 9,000 new cases in about 48 hours. It became one of their highest priorities to deal with the high volume of cases. To manage the situation, the U.S. Embassy Tokyo rapidly came up with three goals in their American citizen services responses:

1. To disseminate accurate and timely information. At times, this meant that they could not say that they knew the whereabouts of someone, but they would do their best to look for them. While this was not ideal, they did not want to confirm anyone’s safety until they knew it to be true.

2. To assist American citizens who wanted to leave. While the U.S. Embassy advises Americans living abroad to have a valid passport, sometimes people delay updating their passport for various reasons. The U.S. Embassy Tokyo experienced a surge in applications from Americans who wanted to leave after the earthquake, but realized they had an invalid passport. Another challenging group were expats in Japan with young children. Since babies born abroad do not receive a U.S. birth certificate, parents must visit a consular office in-person with their child to receive a consular report of birth abroad. The U.S. Embassy Tokyo had a surge in demand for those reports from parents who waited and now wanted to return to the United States.

3. To find and help those people in the affected zones. Although the U.S. Embassy Tokyo knew about permanent residents living in Japan and others such as Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program participants, others like tourists did not necessarily let them know that they were traveling to the affected areas. It took a long time for the U.S. Embassy to close all their “welfare and whereabouts” cases – the very last one closed about 2.5 months after the earthquake.

3. Attempt to help the Government of Japan:

The third concentric circle focused on how the U.S. government could help Japan deal with a massive humanitarian crisis.

Who Came to Help?

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance:

The USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance’s role is to determine how the U.S. government can help a country that has suffered a natural disaster. The United States usually pledges $50,000 or $100,000 in response funds to a crisis. Due to the massive scale of the disaster, the United States decided to commit $100 million of disaster assistance to Japan. It was unprecedented for two reasons. First, Japan is a developed country, so they don’t typically need foreign aid. Secondly, the $100 million of assistance was mostly used to pay for U.S. military logistics. Then-USAID Principal Regional Advisor William Berger was an invaluable adviser on how to navigate dispersing the money and to use it efficiently to maximize the benefits for the Japanese people.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC):

While the U.S. Embassy Tokyo initially focused on helping people in affected areas who didn’t have shelter in below freezing conditions at night, over time their focus began shifting to the nuclear situation and issues relating to radiation exposure. The NRC sent out a team of two engineers to Japan after they recognized the severity of the Fukushima nuclear power plants. As the Fukushima plants were designed in conjunction with General Electric, it was a critical benefit that the two NRC engineers had experience operating similar plants in the United States. Ambassador Zumwalt recalled that he first recognized the seriousness of the problem when many of the answers to the engineers’ long list of questions were, “I don’t know.” Additionally, Ambassador Zumwalt was concerned that the Japanese representatives they met were clearly worried. The Japanese were open and honest with the U.S. Embassy, so they spent a lot of time reporting their findings back to Washington. The NRC established a team of about 8-15 people working full-time within the U.S. Embassy Tokyo for about three months, with another team of over 100 engineers in Washington. Over time, they established a rhythm between the two teams. The team in Tokyo would meet with their Japanese counterparts, and report back to Washington the greatest challenges of that day. The team in Washington would then conduct computer simulations and various modeling scenarios, and then report to the Tokyo team their best advice based on their results. Ambassador Zumwalt stressed that the U.S. Embassy Tokyo served in an advisory capacity to their Japanese counterparts and didn’t hold any decision-making authority. However, he was proud that they could at least help provide the best minds in the nuclear engineering field the United States could offer to the Japanese people.

U.S. Department of Energy:

The U.S. Department of Energy assisted in helping to gather an accurate assessment of how much nuclear radiation was being released in Fukushima. This data was critical in order to make informed decisions on establishing evacuation zones. The U.S. Department of Energy sent one of their specialized measuring equipment to assess the amount of radiation on the ground. That equipment was quickly loaded onto a U.S. Air Force plane and flew zigzag patterns over the affected areas. After about two or three days, they were able to assess the amount of radiation on the ground which allowed them to extrapolate how much was in the atmosphere. This enabled the Japanese government to make better informed decisions and eliminate the worst-case scenarios.

National Institute of Health:

The National Institute for Health sent an expert, Dr. Norm Coleman, one of the world’s leading experts on radiation illness to Japan. Dr. Coleman provided critical knowledge about radiation’s effects and facilitated connections to Japanese radiation experts. Through Dr. Coleman’s expert analysis of the situation, Ambassador Zumwalt could be confident in the U.S. Embassy’s decision to increase their staff numbers in order to manage the workload.

Center for Disease Control (CDC):

The CDC was very crucial in assisting the U.S. Embassy Tokyo to improve their communication’s strategy during the crisis. Around day four, one of the water testing sites indicated a slightly elevated level of radiation. In their efforts to be transparent, the Japanese government provided all the information to the press. This caused panic, as the public began buying bottled water in bulk. The CDC provided a health risk communications expert to help the U.S. Embassy translate “doctor language” into layperson terms. For example, the expert advised them to say, “There are X amounts of millisieverts, which is the equivalent to eating one banana.” This helped place the radiation levels into ordinary context, so that the public could understand the implications. The U.S. Embassy Tokyo converted its website into a communications platform, which became the go-to place for highly respected and rational information.

U.S. Department of State Volunteers:

Lastly, Ambassador Zumwalt highlighted his home agency: the U.S. Department of State. The department’s normal footprint in Japan was approximately 250 Americans, which expanded to about 400 Americans in a week. This was significant as it was during a time when many other embassies were shutting down. Ambassador Zumwalt described receiving calls from his counterparts in Seoul and Hong Kong, who asked whether he needed help. He remembered saying, “Yes! Tell me how many you can send.” Due to the number of volunteers needed, the U.S. Embassy Tokyo eventually turned the process over to the Bureau of Consular Affairs to recruit and vet volunteers. In particular, they needed support and consular staff to help manage the increased caseload. Over time, approximately 100 junior officers from the State Department – many first or second tour officers – arrived in Japan to help within the first month. Ambassador Zumwalt made it a point to interview everyone and would ask why they volunteered. He was amazed by the reservoir of goodwill for Japan as many of the officers explained they had a connection to the country. Some of the officers had been a JET Program participant, or an exchange student, or they had Japanese friends in the United States. The officers said that they joined the U.S. government to help in a crisis, and they wanted to help Japan.

Lessons Learned

Ambassador Zumwalt also shared seven lessons learned that remain relevant today for individuals, companies, and organizations in their disaster preparedness planning. His recommendations included:

1. Enroll in the STEP Program:

Americans travelling abroad should enroll in the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service that allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Registrants can input their locations and dates when they travel abroad, which makes it easier for embassies to find these travelers if there is a natural disaster.

2. Preparedness:

It is very important to be prepared such as holding fire drills, stocking emergency supplies, and establishing alternate command centers or means of communication. Ambassador Zumwalt credited the U.S. Embassy Tokyo’s fire drill enabled them to address any mistakes and to train everyone on what they should do in an emergency. They also prepared by having a stash of MREs and water on hand, which helped to assure staff that they didn’t have to worry about food or safe drinking water. Instead, staff could focus on their jobs at a time when their work was critically important to ensuring the safety and well-being of others.

3. Communications:

During a crisis, organizations should plan how they will communicate with staff, the public, and the government (if applicable). Ambassador Zumwalt highlighted the importance of communicating to staff that their safety and their families’ are valued. The U.S. Embassy Tokyo offered to fly non-employed spouses and children home for free, and many took them up on the offer. This was a significant benefit because the remaining staff could focus on their jobs and not worry about their loved ones. Ambassador Zumwalt also emphasized the necessity of remembering that first responders are also victims. It is helpful to remember that first responders are not robots, but human beings with their own concerns and needs. The U.S. Embassy Tokyo communicated with their staff by holding daily briefings on the radiation situation to increase transparency and to reassure staff of their safety.

Ambassador Zumwalt also explained that the U.S. Embassy Tokyo made conscious efforts to communicate with the Japanese public about their commitment to stay. In the weeks after the earthquake, the Japanese press began to term foreigners who fled the country as “fly-jin”. Ambassador Zumwalt wanted to convey the message that the U.S. Embassy was not leaving and in fact, they were expanding their operations in Tokyo. To do this, they sent teams to Narita and Haneda airports in order to set-up information booths which attracted Japanese media attention. Additionally, they placed advertisements in the local papers to announce that they were extending their consular service hours. This was an intentional message to the Japanese public that the U.S. Embassy Tokyo was present and expanding their role in Japan.

4. Management of staff to sustain response in a long-term crisis:

Even though there may be many competing priorities, leaders must think about long-term issues during a crisis and manage their staff accordingly. After the earthquake, Ambassador Zumwalt intentionally selected some people in the evening to go home. He realized that they would not be able to sustain an ongoing response if everyone worked and crashed at the same time. His message to those people that he selected were, “I value you. I know you’re very important. That’s why I need you to go home now, in order to be ready to work here at 8am.” Over time, the U.S. Embassy Tokyo set up a 24/7 crisis response team that worked under a shift system for about 40 days with ten officers working at any given moment. This enabled them to continue carrying out their essential operations throughout the crisis. As mentioned above, it was also important to acknowledge that crisis responders were also victims. The U.S. Embassy was fortunate to have a psychiatrist based in Tokyo full-time, who held stress management classes and spoke to people. For the most part, the psychiatrist served as an effective “safety valve” for people who needed an outlet to cope. Unfortunately, there were a few people whom the U.S. Embassy evacuated since it became difficult for those people to manage under the high-stress situation.

5. “The Fog of War” – Decision making with imperfect information:

The term, “The Fog of War,” coined by Carl von Clausewitz is often used as a metaphor for war’s ambiguities. Ambassador Zumwalt shared that he had not expected to be in a situation where he would have to manage with imperfect information. Although hindsight can be very useful in conducting analysis and determining lessons learned after a crisis, it is unhelpful during the moment. Ambassador Zumwalt recalled that there was a lot of frustration towards leaders as they focused on gathering more information rather than making decisions. He recommended that leaders should be comfortable in being decisive with imperfect information. As more information becomes available, leaders need to be flexible in adjusting or amending their decisions as necessary.

6. Bring in expertise – then listen:

During the crisis, the U.S. government brought in experts from the CDC, NIH, NRC, the Energy Department, etc. Although it may seem obvious, Ambassador Zumwalt reminded attendees that it was not only important to bring in expertise but also to listen to them. He cautioned against basing decisions on fear rather than expertise. Since fear has a way of blinding people, it is important to remember to listen to the experts.

7. Whole of Government response:

Ambassador Zumwalt emphasized the need for a “whole of government” response, as not one entity could deal with the crisis alone. In one anecdote, Ambassador Zumwalt gave the example of the U.S. Embassy Tokyo and the U.S. military sharing “exchange of hostages” in order to improve their communications. As there were many decisions between the two sides that affected the other, they instituted a policy to exchange staff. Raymond Greene, then U.S. Consul-General in Naha, lived in Yokota full-time during this exchange while the U.S. military sent about six people to work in the U.S. Embassy Tokyo. These types of exchanges were helpful in facilitating accurate and timely communication, which enabled them to respond effectively on behalf of the whole of the U.S. government.


Ambassador Zumwalt concluded his remarks by sharing a final personal anecdote. He revealed that April 29th is a special anniversary for him and his wife, since it was the first day that they could leisurely enjoy breakfast together since March 11th. Previously, he often left home to run into the Embassy at 6am. While the U.S. Embassy was still responding to the aftermath, the degree of the crisis had gone down. Therefore, April 29th is a special anniversary to them.

SPFUSA is grateful to Ambassador Zumwalt for sharing his personal experiences and lessons learned at this timely luncheon, and would like to thank all of the U.S. Embassy staff and civilian workers who responded to the March 11th triple disaster. SPFUSA also thanks the East-West Center in Washington for hosting this policy luncheon in their conference room.


For more information about Sasakawa USA’s Policy Briefing Series, go here


March 5, 2020
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
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East-West Center in Washington
1819 L Street NW
Washington, D.C., 20036

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