Events Operation TOMODACHI: A Ten-Year Commemoration

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Operation TOMODACHI: A Ten-Year Commemoration

March 3, 2021 @ 9:00 am - 10:30 am

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On Wednesday, March 3, 2021, as part of an annual event, the Japan U.S. Military Program (JUMP) hosted an online event in collaboration with the Embassy of Japan and Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (Sasakawa USA). This event highlighted the 10th anniversary of Operation TOMODACHI, a major U.S.-Japan joint effort undertaken following the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent triple disaster. JUMP was pleased to welcome H.E. Koji Tomita, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to the United States, for opening remarks, followed by remarks from Major General Hiroyuki Sugai, Air and Defense Attaché of the Embassy of Japan, Washington, D.C. Lastly, Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, USN (Ret.) and General Ryoichi Oriki, JGSDF (Ret.) delivered keynote speeches reflecting on the success of Operation TOMODACHI.

This event was presented through JUMP, which connects past and present service members, families, and government civilians who have served in Japan through social networks and grassroots events. The event was held virtually via Zoom. Attendees included distinguished guests from the Washington D.C. policy community, academic think tanks, and former and current members of the military and government. Ms. Shanti Shoji, Director of Programs at Sasakawa USA, moderated the panel and facilitated audience commentary.

Opening Remarks by Ambassador Koji Tomita

Amb. Koji Tomita began the webinar by speaking about the enormity of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Highlighting the severity of the disaster, he stated that the recorded 150-foot-tall tsunami waves that hit Japan were an analogy of Japanese people’s feelings at that time. Despite the country’s high-tech earthquake and tsunami early warning detection systems, Japan was sent reeling from the magnitude of the disaster. Yet, Japanese people demonstrated great dignity and resilience in response to the triple disaster as noted by Amb. Tomita.

Japanese resilience was met with U.S. aid through Operation TOMODACHI, working together to respond to the crisis Japan faced in the hours, days, and weeks that followed the earthquake. Operation TOMODACHI reaffirmed the U.S.-Japan bond on a more personal level, adding a deeper dimension of friendship. The U.S.-Japan alliance is usually framed by defense and geopolitical concerns, but Amb. Tomita stated that Operation TOMODACHI deepened the heart of the friendship. In closing, the Ambassador stated that U.S. forces stationed in Japan during the disaster will always be remembered, and Japanese people will continue to remember their contribution and be forever grateful.

Remarks by Major General Hiroyuki Sugai

Due to duties as the Air and Defense Attaché of the Embassy of Japan, Washington, D.C., Major General Hiroyuki Sugai delivered his remarks via recorded video. In his statements, he first offered condolences to those in Japan who had lost family and friends; he shares their sorrow. He added that the upcoming anniversary of 3/11 is a somber occasion, but he reminded the audience that it is also the anniversary of Operation TOMODACHI. In Japan’s darkest hours, the United States raised out a hand to help Japan respond in the days following the earthquake and tsunami. Major General Sugai stated that the provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief demonstrated the deep bond of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Concluding, he noted that as the world continues to change, the United States and Japan will face new challenges with the same spirit of friendship and cooperation.

Keynote Speech by Admiral Patrick M. Walsh

Next, Admiral Patrick M. Walsh delivered his keynote speech. He began by stating that in his years of service around the world, he had never experienced anything close to what followed in the days after the Great East Japan Earthquake. The loss of life and damage was apocalyptic in magnitude, especially in the hard-hit prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate. He stated that though these were some of Japan’s darkest hours, it is in these hours that one learns about the brotherhood of humanity. In response to the disaster, there was a record number of citizens that mobilized to assist, dedicated workers known as the Fukushima 50, and also the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). ADM Walsh remarked that the JSDF carried a deep sense of personal honor and responsibility in their mission responding to the disaster.

ADM Walsh then stated that if one ever seeks to witness the wrath of nature, one needs to look no further than Sendai. Recalling confusing pictures of commercial tanker vessels on land and automobiles pulled out to sea, ADM Walsh remarked that this same powerful wave summoned an equally powerful force – the Japanese people. The Japanese people were dedicated to building a future for their children with politeness and prudence. ADM Walsh added that they were joined by more than 50 non-governmental organizations, the Japan and U.S. government, USAID, and many more groups in Operation TOMODACHI, a unified effort that demonstrated the friendship of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Shifting to focus on U.S.-Japan forces’ efforts through Operation TOMODACHI, ADM Walsh stated that the mark of an impressive organization is its capability to learn and grow under pressure. The events following the Great East Japan Earthquake demonstrated both forces’ capability to pivot from humanitarian assistance to mission and response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. ADM Walsh noted that the complexity and scope of both humanitarian and radiological support through united efforts is not a traditional arrangement. However, each critical information-sharing hub in both the U.S. Japan forces headquartered in Yokota and the JSDF headquartered in Ichigaya worked side by side for every meeting, every decision, and every day of Operation TOMODACHI.

Operation TOMODACHI, as noted by ADM Walsh, was not simply a military operation but was much more. The experience demonstrated what is possible in the U.S-Japan alliance. Citing Bushido by Inazo Nitobe alongside The American Soul by Jacob Needleman, ADM Walsh stated that these works offer insights into developing close friendships between people and nations. Through Operation TOMODACHI, both the United States and Japan learned that nations have interests, but people have friends. Concluding, ADM Walsh stated that the friendship demonstrated in Operation TOMODACHI and beyond it within the U.S.-Japan alliance will continue to endure. He will always remember his participation in Operation TOMODACHI and will never forget the grace of the Japanese people.

Keynote Speech by General Ryoichi Oriki

After ADM Walsh’s remarks, General Ryoichi Oriki followed with the final keynote speech discussing Operation TOMODACHI from the Japanese perspective. He first discussed the 3/11 disaster. He stated that ten years have passed since the earthquake and the greatest national crisis Japan has experienced in decades. Today, the area affected by the disaster is on the way to recovery but there are still many jobs to do, including the cleanup of the Fukushima. Gen. Oriki continued that the Great East Japan Earthquake was a complex disaster and the response to it was the largest and most difficult mission for the JSDF.

Speaking to both the JSDF and U.S. forces, Gen. Oriki highlighted that 2011 was the first time the JSDF had formed a joint task force for disaster relief. Furthermore, it was only five years past the creation of Japan’s Joint Staff to integrate Japan’s services. Addressing U.S. Forces, Gen. Oriki remarked that he was surprised by their quick movement, with the USS Ronald Regan advancing quickly to the coast of the disaster area. This overall quick U.S. response, in collaboration with the JSDF, demonstrated the strength of the alliance to neighboring countries. Moreover, it demonstrated that the strength of the alliance was built upon the mutual connection through years of joint training and mutual dialogue.

Turning to address connections at the local level, Gen. Oriki admitted that he was at first concerned about U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) service members operating in local areas. Prior to the earthquake and resulting disasters, USFJ had never worked with the Japanese people affected by a disaster. However, Gen. Oriki stated that his initial fear was unfounded, proven in the photos and videos at the beginning of the webinar. Gen. Oriki added that ADM Walsh, alongside others, visited Japanese people staying in schools and other shelters to help encourage and assist them. Concluding his thoughts on this discussion, Gen. Oriki stated that this part of Operation TOMODACHI was truly meaningful and wonderful.

Next, Gen. Oriki discussed the Fukushima incident. As the JSDF does not have nuclear technology within the military force, its response capability was limited. However, the U.S. government and military provided Japanese government entities and the JSDF with expertise on nuclear reactors and other issues. Gen. Oriki added that Japan greatly benefitted from various U.S. equipment such as the Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that was dispatched from Washington to survey Fukushima. Though tensions ran high during the Fukushima incident, Gen. Oriki expressed gratitude to the efforts of diplomats and defense officials who maintained and strengthened bilateral ties in a greatly difficult time.

The difficult time following March 2011 also included concerns about Japan’s neighboring countries. Gen. Oriki stated that Chinese and Russian surveillance aircraft were operating in the area around Japan following the events of 3/11. Though the JSDF dispatched over 100,000 personnel for disaster relief, Gen. Oriki remarked that he was grateful for continuing U.S. surveillance capabilities through Operation TOMODACHI. Concluding, Gen. Oriki remarked that the importance of friendship and strong people-to-people relations are the major factors underpinning the U.S.-Japan alliance; Operation TOMODACHI embodied the strength of the U.S.-Japan military and government relations.

Audience Commentary

Next, Dr. Satohiro Akimoto, Chairman and President of Sasakawa USA, introduced four key speakers who played a critical role in the success of Operation TOMODACHI. The first speaker was Lieutenant General Burton M. Field (Ret.), former commander of USFJ, October 2010 – July 2012. He began by identifying the three guiding principles at the core of Operation TOMODACHI: transparency, collaboration, and cooperation. Additionally, three understandings helped guide the mission. First, USFJ focused on ensuring actions were designed to strengthen the alliance. Secondly, USFJ made clear that they were the supporting element as not to overpower the JSDF’s response. Lastly, Operation TOMODACHI was about the Japanese people who were experiencing tremendous hardship following 3/11, and USFJ was there to find these people and help them. These aspects helped guide Operation TOMODACHI, and through exchanges they aided in improving collaboration and information sharing. Concluding, Lt Gen Field stated that the Japanese people handled the 3/11 crisis with grace, honor, and courage, and that is something he will never forget.

Following Lt Gen Field’s remarks, the next featured speaker was Vice Admiral Scott Van Buskirk, Commander of U.S. Seventh Fleet, 2010 – 2011. VADM Van Buskirk first reminded the audience that in 2011, the United States and Japan had just celebrated sixty years of the alliance. While celebrations focused on defense and security aspects of the relationship, VADM Van Buskirk stated that Operation TOMODACHI brought to the forefront the notion of friendship. He was reminded of this aspect during Operation TOMODACHI itself. After joint U.S.-Japan forces went into Misawa to assist with cleanup, he remembered that an elderly gentleman approached a young U.S. serviceman and said, “I always thought about you as neighbors, but now I think about you as friends.” VADM Van Buskirk stated that this interaction highlighted the notion of friendship in the alliance. Furthermore, he added that his strong ties with Admiral Kenichi Kuramoto and Admiral Takeshima helped forge a relationship that was built on the two respective services but also one built on friendship. Concluding, what struck him from Operation TOMODACHI was the validation of how important the U.S.-Japan alliance is as a cornerstone of peace and stability in the region, but also just how well the two forces worked together seamlessly and side-by-side to respond to the disasters of 3/11.

Next, Lieutenant General Koichiro Bansho (JGSDF, Ret.), presented his remarks. In March 2011, following the earthquake, LtGen Bansho was appointed as Chief of the Bilateral Coordination Center (BCC), the first establishment of such an organization in U.S.-Japan alliance history, in support of General Oriki. From his experiences at the BCC, he learned the strategic significance of the operation for maintaining regional security. Unprecedented Chinese and Russian activity occurred after 3/11, and Operation TOMODACHI sent a message to these countries which conveyed the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance. In addition, he learned the importance of contribution from many nameless, individual service members. The operations of U.S. Marine Corps in Oshima Islands, the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force dispatched from Washington, U.S. Air Force landing of the C130 on Sendai airport, U.S. Army Operation Soul Train, and U.S. Force Japan family members Operation Backpack are just a few important examples of teams that contributed greatly to Operation TOMODACHI. Concluding LtGen Bansho stated that ten years have passed since 3/11; however, the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific is becoming increasingly unstable. In response to this change, the U.S.-Japan alliance is critically important to continuing deterrence and security; Operation TOMODACHI has proved this.

The final featured speaker was General Gary North, Commander Pacific Air Forces, Hawaii, August 2009 – present. Though 3/11 occurred over just a decade ago, Gen North stated that for his remarks, he wanted to focus on the future by learning from the past. To do so, he recalled the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, also known as the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, in Southeast Asia. Following 3/11 in Japan, Gen North highlighted that U.S. forces pulled the response plan from disasters in 2004 and went to work via a supporting role, which the JSDF preferred for USFJ over an overwhelming one. Moreover, Gen North stated that there was adaptation, implementation, and pivots in day-to-day operations in Operation TOMODACHI. Through these, Gen North highlighted that Japanese people have shown great dignity in the most perilous of times. He added that he will never forget the images of the C130 airplane landing at Sendai airport, nor his actions in Hachinohe, aiding the city in getting back to work quickly. Through these actions alongside others, Gen North stated that Operation TOMODACHI was a graduation exercise of a wonderful alignment of an organization into a joint operation. Looking ahead, he concluded that due to climate change and impacts of mankind, perilous times may arise again. However, the United States as everlasting allies, partners, and family, and will meet these challenges together.


Sasakawa USA is grateful to Ambassador Koji Tomita, Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, General Ryoichi Oriki, Major General Sugai, audience commentators, and attendees for the thoughtful discussion on Operation TOMODACHI.

The summarized views of the speakers expressed herein are entirely the work of Sasakawa USA and do not represent the official positions of any of the speakers.

 For more information about Sasakawa USA’s Policy Briefing Series, click here. For more information about JUMP, click here.


March 3, 2021
9:00 am - 10:30 am
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