US Service members and local residents work together to pull a damaged vehicle from the woods near the Misawa port in Aomori Prefecture, Japan, as part of a larger cooperative relief effort along Japan's eastern coast. Photo by U.S. Navy, Matthew M. Bradl

A Friend in Need: The United States Government Response to Japan’s Crisis


On the morning of March 11, 2011, after America awoke to the news of the devastation of northeastern Japan by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake of subsequent tsunami, US President Barack Obama pledged the support of the United States:

“The United States stands ready to help the Japanese people in this time of great trial. The friendship and alliance between our two nations is unshakable, and only strengthens our resolve to stand with the people of Japan as they overcome this tragedy.”

The high level of engagement and cooperation between the American and Japanese governments and their agencies in response to this crisis speaks to the strength of the US-Japan partnership. Aboard the USS Essex, a ship that once fought in the Battle of Okinawa that is now serving a critical support and logistics role Operation Tomodachi, Captain David Fluker remarked: ”What we are here for is to stop the pain and stop the suffering, and ensure that life gets back to normal as soon as possible for our friends in Japan.”

In the United States, a multi-agency governmental relief effort was launched soon after the earthquake, in some cases within a matter of hours, to assist America’s partner in the Pacific. Over 100 experts from agencies ranging from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health and Human Services have arrived at the US Embassy in Tokyo to loan their expertise. Some departments have maintained large-scale relief operations and have continued their support over the past three weeks.

Department of Defense:

Map of the disaster affected areas, and deployment of US humanitarian assistance. Chart Source: USAID (Click to Enlarge)

The DOD launched Operation Tomodachi (“friend”), a US Armed Forces relief operation in Japan in concert with the efforts of the Japan Special Defense Forces (JSDF), to continue through mid-April. Combined, the US Navy and Air Force have contributed the use of over 20 ships, 158 aircraft, and 18,900 personnel.

US military forces have played a key role in clearing airfields and re-opening the Sendai airport for relief aid, while US Navy salvage diving units worked with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) to clear debris and other navigational hazards from the ports along the tsunami affected coast. As of April 4, the US military has delivered more than 260 tons of relief supplies and transported over 2,602 tons of cargo. To assist the cooling of the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, US Navy barges delivered over 500,000 gallons of fresh water.

US military reconnaissance aircraft and drones have been flying missions to survey the impacted areas, monitor radioactivity over the beleaguered Fukushima nuclear power facility, and locate isolated groups of people in need of assistance. Over 160 aerial reconnaissance and search sorties have been flown since the operation began.

To cheer up displaced citizens in the earthquake zones, the US Army Japan band has performed joint concerts with their JSDF counterparts, while US sailors and marines have helped clean school yards to prepare for the first day of classes.

United States Agency for International Development/Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance:

Immediately after the earthquake, USAID deployed a Disaster Response Team (DART) and two urban search and rescue teams (USAR) from Fairfax County, VA, and Los Angeles County, CA to coordinate the USG response and engage with the Japanese relief effort at the national, prefecutural, and local levels. The 144 personnel and 12 search dogs of the USARs completed assignments in the cities of Ofunato and Kaimashi in Iwate prefecture.

To assist local recovery efforts, USAR teams transferred almost $145,000 in equipment to the Ofunato fire department including 4 zodiac boat kits, 16 kerosene heaters, 160 cots, and 160 sleeping bags. In addition, 100,000 personal protection kits were sent to the JSDF for those operating in the inclusion zones near the damaged Fukushima nuclear plants.

Department of Energy:

The DOE sent more than 17,200 pounds of equipment and 39 experts – including Consequence Management Response Teams and Aerial Measuring Systems – to assist with the response to the post-earthquake nuclear crisis. The CMRT have the training and equipment to help assess, survey, monitor and sample the affected areas, and have been working closely and sharing data with the Japanese government and industry experts.

As of April 4, the Aerial Measuring Systems have logged over 221 hours of flying, and the CMRT have collected thousands of ground measurements from DOE, DoD, and Japanese monitoring teams. DoE is also sending a shipment of radiation hardened robots to provide visual, radiological, and mapping data in areas where radiation levels are too high for humans.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Immediately following the earthquake, the NRC activated its 24-hour Emergency Operations Center to monitor and analyze the events at the nuclear power plants in Japan, and dispatched two NRC experts to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. Within days a team of 11 NRC staff arrived in Japan to provide technical support to the Embassy and the Japanese government. 250 staff members continue to support the efforts in Japan and at the EOC on a rotating basis.

Humanitarian Aid:

As of April 4 the U.S. government has announced and committed over $69.7 million dollars in humanitarian aid, with $6.8 million from USAID/OFDA and $62.9 million from DoD humanitarian assistance. According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United States has given the most aid of any government, accounting for 11.1% of total aid given to Japan. By far the largest amount, however, is from the outpouring of private donations from individuals and organizations, which makes up 83.4% of the total.