Tomodachi and Kizuna: The US-Japan Relationship One Year After the Great East Japan Earthquake


This past Sunday at 2:46pm, a moment of silence was observed across Japan in remembrance of the moment a year ago when an incredible 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the nation’s Northeast coast and rocked buildings hundreds of miles away, caused a tsunami that crashed ashore minutes later, and set off a nuclear emergency at the coastal Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex. The damage to the Tōhoku region was immense. At present the dead or missing number over 19,000, and over 250,000 whose homes were destroyed or within the nuclear evacuation zone continue to live in temporary housing. However as the Japanese remember those lost and continue the long process of recovery, they are joined and supported by the American people as communities throughout the US held memorials to commemorate the anniversary.

From the earliest moments following the disaster until now, the US offered humanitarian, technical, and financial assistance to “stand with Japan” and help its close friend and ally recover from the unprecedented and complex disaster, for which the Japanese have offered their sincere gratitude. In an Op-Ed piece published on March 11 in the Washington Post, Japan’s current Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda wrote, “We will not forget the loved ones, friends and colleagues lost in the disaster. Nor will we forget the outpouring of support and international expressions of solidarity that Japan received. For this, we feel deeply indebted and forever appreciative.”

Ambassador Rust Deming was a the retired US diplomat who had been recalled to the Japan desk of the Department of State to co-lead the task force that coordinated the US government and military response to the disasters. He recalled in a recent presentation that when he arrived at the State Department at 7am (Washington time) on March 11, the orders from the White House and Secretary of State were clear: Do everything you can to support Japan. Officials at the US embassy in Tokyo activated their emergency plans from the embassy parking lot after evacuating their shaking buildings. US Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, told Time magazine that over the following days, the embassy grew by about 150 as experts from throughout the federal government arrived to support their Japanese counterparts.

Two American search and rescue teams were immediately dispatched and sent to Ofunato and Kamishimai in Iwate Prefecture, port cities that were partially submerged by the tsunami. They were the largest of the rescue teams from 23 countries operating in Tōhoku, with a combined 144 personnel and 9 dogs. Meanwhile the first of a cadre of US nuclear experts also arrived in Japan within a day and a half of the first tremors. Owing to a long history of cooperation and coordination between the US and Japanese governments’ nuclear agencies, they were able to aid in the disaster response through technical and monitoring support that extended throughout the year. One specialist from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who was among the first to arrive at the embassy, remained in Tokyo working with the Japanese government until only a few weeks ago.

Tomodachi School

The most visible element of the American response to the complex disaster was “Operation Tomodachi,” the joint US Military-Japan Special Defense Force (JSDF) humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation that extended until mid-April 2011. It included 24,000 US personnel, 190 aircraft, and 24 Navy ships participated in the largest joint mission in the history of the US-Japan alliance. Some of the tasks undertaken by the US forces were broad in scope with a wide impact, such as clearing the inundated Sendai airport (made operational in one week) and providing much needed logistical support for aid distribution. Others were more personal in nature: an officer on the USS Blue Ridge responded to an email message from a 14-year old Japanese girl, who recognized her father’s lost fishing vessel in a photograph taken by the US Navy, by helping the Japanese coast guard locate and return the ship to her family.

“As a result of these efforts, favorable opinion of the alliance is at an all-time high in both the US and Japan. On the anniversary of the disasters, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated, “I believe the greatest service we can do is when we are able to reach out and help our fellow human beings in need. Together, Japanese and American forces helped those in need, and solidified the friendship between our two great nations for generations to come.”

US President Barack Obama also released a statement on March 11, hailing the strength and resilience of the Japanese people, the combined US government and military efforts, and “the compassion of the American people, who in difficult economic times have given generously to help.” While according to the United Nations, the US government’s donation of nearly $95 million dollars in humanitarian assistance to Japan accounted for 13.1% of the total international aid pledged and surpassed the combined sum of the other sovereign contributions, it was still dwarfed by private giving from American citizens and organizations.

Although the tragedy spurred record-levels of charitable giving within Japan and among its neighbors, the largest amount of overseas “private philanthropy” came from the US. According to a recent report by the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE), Americans donated over $630 million to aid the victims of the 3/11 disasters; the largest amount ever given to a developed country, and exceeded only by the amount raised for the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and 2010 Haiti earthquake.

"Arigato America," a full-page ad that ran in The Washington Times on March 11, 2011, thanking the American people for their help and friendship. Image by: Global Wa Project, and the Center for Professional Exchange

The JCIE survey recorded grass-roots fundraising drives nationwide as thousands of schools, churches, and community groups rallied their support, with over 120 individual US organizations serving as intermediaries to channel the money to Japan. Among them, more than 60 groups dedicated to US-Japan exchange raised $48 million: the Japan-America Societies of 36 cities across the US collected a combined $24 million, 44 communities with sister cities in Japan raised $1.7 million for their partner communities, and the nation-wide network of JET alumni contributed over $300,000. Many US corporations also made large donations to the relief efforts, nearly 50 making pledges of $1 million or more, often supplemented by employee driven charity initiatives such as bake sales or “casual clothing days.”

Hoping to continue this goodwill, leaders in the US and Japanese governments have developed the “TOMODACHI Initiative,” a public-private partnership announced last spring, aimed at supporting the recovery of the Tōhoku region through enhanced bilateral exchange and cooperation. The program seeks to deepen the US-Japan friendship by primarily focusing on educational and academic, sports and cultural, and leadership and entrepreneurial exchanges. The Director of the Department of State’s Office of Japan affairs, Marc Knapper, explained that the reason for a public-private partnership was to bring in the best of both sectors in the US and Japan by serving as a “clearing house” for connecting private sector actors who want to help with projects and programs in need of support. Already TOMODACHI is accepting applications for three different exchange trips to the US for Tōhoku students this, and is sponsoring the performances of Fukushima’s Yamakiya Taiko Group at the Cherry Blossom Centennial Celebration in Washington, DC, next month.

The past couple of weeks have been busy for Japan’s Ambassador to the US, Ichiro Fujisaki, who has had to attend numerous events commemorating the solemn anniversary of the disasters, while planning for the upcoming centennial celebration of the gift of cherry blossoms to Washington. At many public appearances he has commented that Japan is on the “recovery road,” but not without the help from the rest of the world. He recently visited the hard-hit town of Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture and was asked to deliver two messages from the Mayor and Governor to the American people: “Please convey our thanks” and “Please don’t forget us, it will take some time to recover. Please trade with us, please invest in us, please visit us.” A message of thanks to their American Tomodachi for their support and a plea for continued kizuna (“bonds of friendship”) as the region continues on the long road to recovery.