Since the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power here in Japan I have frequently noticed Prime Minister Abe and members of the Cabinet making public remarks criticizing the actions of the Democratic Party of Japan while in office. Amongst these, I consider it particularly important from the perspective of Japan’s national interest that some of these comments regarding the Japan-U.S. relationship should be clearly rectified.
On his first visit to the United States after becoming Prime Minister again, Shinzo Abe proudly announced that the “Japan-U.S. alliance has been fully revived.” This remark implied that the alliance had not functioned while the DPJ was in power. I felt extremely uneasy upon hearing this remark, and it seemed that similar feelings were also shared by some of the people within the Obama administration.
Looking back the three years and three months that the DPJ was in office, I have to acknowledge that Prime Minister Hatoyama’s handling of the Futenma relocation issue created a certain degree of “instability” in bilateral relations. However, Japan-US relations under the subsequent Kan and Noda administrations were solid.
The Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) Nuclear Power Plant was the first and the most serious challenge the Japan-US alliance faced since its formulation. I believe our response to this disaster was an unprecedented example of tremendous bilateral cooperation, with Japan and the United States working hand in hand.
Prior to this incident, some might have had concerns about the alliance, raising the question: “If Japan is attacked by a foreign state, will the United States really come to our aid?” What we actually faced here was not an armed attack from a hostile nation, but the domestic event of a “nuclear accident”. When Japan suffered a huge disaster and was in a real predicament, the true nature of the Japan-US alliance was revealed.
That true nature we found was that until Japan takes the initiative in proactively and independently responding to an ‘enemy’, the United States will not provide cooperation. In other words, if Japan faces up squarely to a difficulty, the United States will provide unreserved support and is a true ally whom we can rely upon.
On March 14, 2011, faced with the uncontrollable Fukushima Daiichi, even indomitable plant manager Masao Yoshida was pessimistic, lamenting, “There may be nothing that we can do.”
On the following day, March 15, when I, then serving as Special Adviser to the Prime Minister, was seconded to Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) as Secretary-General of the Joint Emergency Response Headquarters dealing with the accident, the situation worsened further. The US side pointed out that the spent fuel pool at Unit 4 reactor was in a critical condition, and some even suggested that it might be better to leave the response to the United States.
However, the US, too, did not have any prior experience of this kind. I sensed that the Americans were concerned as to whether Japan had the guts to proactively deal with the accident. If Japan had ended up relying totally on the US, I believe there was a possibility that the Americans would have ceased to respect the decisions of the Japanese government and decided that they had no alternative but to deal with the accident unilaterally. The US could not have left the situation at Fukushima Daiichi uncontrolled from the perspective of the security environment in the Far East.
However, if that had occurred, the bilateral relationship would have changed fundamentally: Japan would have been returned to its position 60 years ago; and even if it was officially able to maintain its independence, no one would view Japan as an independent state as it had been exposed to the world as being in practice incapable of dealing with a national crisis.
After the nuclear accident occurred, the United States hinted: “The U.S. will not provide cooperation until Japan takes serious action by herself.” In other words, as long as signs of Japan’s active role, namely the operation of Japanese teams on-site, was not observed, the US would not provide support. That attitude is only natural.
This is the reason why the operation by SDF helicopters to spray water onto the spent fuel pools on March 16 and 17 was vital. In the late afternoon of March 16, I held my breath as I monitored the live broadcast of the helicopters. Emergency works at Fukushima Daiichi were also suspended that afternoon and everyone was waiting for the helicopters. The first reconnaissance helicopter passed overhead and finally the second helicopter storing the water was nearing the plant. But, something unexpected happened. That helicopter left the scene without spraying any water.
I received a phone call from Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa. He told me: “The radiation levels were too high and we had to abandon the water spraying operation.” I felt as if we had no options remaining, and were facing a national crisis. My private secretary recalls that my face had turned white as a ghost at that time. Everyone at both TEPCO headquarters and at Fukushima Daiichi itself remained silent. Having been dispatched to the headquarters as the government representative, however, I should not be seen as paralyzed. I regained my composure and picked up my cellphone, contacting Prime Minister Kan, then Defense Minister Kitazawa. I told them that “The SDF is the last resort. I hope they will be able to carry out the operation tomorrow.” Minister Kitazawa responded, “We will do it tomorrow.” His firm assurance helped me to keep calm.
Then came March 17. The SDF managed to spray water to the spent fuel pools. According to media reports, some experts commented that spraying water from helicopters was nothing more than a performance, that most of the water had failed to reach the pools, and that the entire operation was meaningless. In reality, what was critical was not the amount of water that reached the pools. It was the determination shown by Japan in spraying water from helicopters under such difficult conditions that was vital. That operation demonstrated that the Japanese government was resolved to fight against the nuclear accident, and proved that Japan was an independent nation that was capable of undertaking such an operation. That was absolutely crucial.
The US response clearly became more positive following the helicopter water spraying mission. After the operation, President Obama telephoned Prime Minister Kan, and stated: “We are determined to do everything possible to support Japan…”
The stage had been set for Japan and the US to engage in a joint response to the accident, but there was still a barrier to ensuring effective coordination of these efforts. That was the problem of consolidating multiple channels of communication into a single point of contact between the two sides. The Joint Crisis Management Coordination Group launched on March 22 played an important role in overcoming that challenge. The Group was established in order to improve the lack of coordination in communications between Japan and the United States immediately after the accident. The following is the background of the events leading to its establishment.
Soon after the accident, communications between US and Japan could hardly be described as smooth: the US asked to have representatives stationed in the Prime Minister’s Office whereas the Japanese side turned down that request. At the suggestion of DPJ Diet member Akihisa Nagashima, who has good connections with the US, I met US Ambassador John V. Roos. This meeting heightened my sense of crisis. On March 17, Ambassador Roos told me that the US was increasing the recommended evacuation zone for U.S. citizens in Japan to a radius of 50 miles (80 km) from Fukushima Daiichi. The Ambassador stated that “Although we have widened our evacuation zone, there is no change in the U.S. determination to fight together with Japan to resolve the nuclear accident.” His bleak expression clearly indicated how seriously the United States government viewed the situation. I sensed that Ambassador Roos was making his best effort to explain the Japanese position to his colleagues back in Washington.
I left the meeting with the Ambassador and headed for the Prime Minister’s Office, where I suggested to Prime Minister Naoto Kan that a joint Japan-US taskforce should be set up under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. The Prime Minister himself also seemed to have felt the need for such a body and immediately decided to authorize its establishment. The support given by Minister Kitazawa was also crucial.
What the US side found most confusing at the time was that a large number of Japanese government bodies were involved in the disaster response. This made it extremely difficult for them to establish exactly which organization was their counterpart. That was the rationale behind establishing the Joint Crisis Management Coordination Group as a single point of administrative contact. Due to my role in establishing and moderating the meetings, they were known informally as the ‘Hosono Process’.
The United States was represented at the meetings by Charles ‘Chuck’ Casto, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) lead executive in charge of providing support to the Japanese government and the U.S. Ambassador (Head of the U.S. team), and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy James Zumwalt, as well as representatives from the U.S. Navy, U.S. Naval Reactors, U.S. Forces Japan, and the U.S. Department of Energy (D.O.E.).
The Japanese side comprised of Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama (Head of the Japan team), as well as representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MOFA), the civilian and uniformed branches of the Ministry of Defense (MOD), the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor (MHLW), and TEPCO. Ministries were required to send Deputy Director-General level staff and to ensure that the same persons attended each meeting.
The meeting agenda focused on the following three major items:
(1) Discussing the status of the nuclear facilities
(2) Exchanging opinions on ways of avoiding a worst-case scenario
(3) Discussing requests from Japan to the US for necessary equipment and materials and US responses to these requests, including arrangements for the provision of requested items
The Joint Crisis Management Coordination Group also ended up having an additional role. It came to serve as a coordinating mechanism on the Japanese side. The stovepipes within the Japanese government were smoothly addressed. This is because everyone concerned was determined to respond with a whole-of-government approach to the threat posed by the nuclear accident.
In particular, the coordination among the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, NISA, MEXT and NSC worked well. Representatives from these organizations had been working together to combat the nuclear accident since March 11, and so by the time the Joint Crisis Management Coordination Group was launched on March 22, they recognized not just each other faces but also the various personalities involved. This made it easy to get them to cooperate.
The difficulty lay with MOFA and MOD.
MOFA operates under the principle of the centralization of diplomacy, so their basic position was that they should be the main point of contact for dealing with the United States. An order to open the channel of communication in the Prime Minister’s Office did not work out as we had hoped. After Minister for Foreign Affairs Takeaki Matsumoto, who was elected to the Diet in the same year as myself, instructed MOFA officials to “make Hosono’s meetings the main point of contact”, things started to go more smoothly. I think that Ambassador Roos’ influence also played a part.
The MOD, meanwhile, required a two-step approach. Firstly, we did not step into military-to-military exchanges between the MOD and the US military, and only asked for the minimum amount of information to be reported to the meeting. For example, when US Marines Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) arrived in Japan, we just received a simple factual report. Secondly, after Minister Kitazawa, who was well respected by officials within the MOD and had the ministry under his control, told his officials that “All general communications other than military-to-military exchanges with the US are to be routed via Hosono”, the MOD actively engaged in the Group meetings.
Arrangements were made for a whole-of-government approach. All stakeholders left behind their sectionalism and worked together to support a whole-of-government response. The members of the Japanese team made every effort to commit themselves to the operation.
At the outset, the US side also showed signs of their own stovepipe bureaucracy. NRC, which was the lead agency on the US team, had historically been a part of the DOE. The DOE possesses wide-ranging high-level technologies, covering the entire energy sector. This enables the DOE to develop their knowledge about robots and other unmanned technologies to a degree well beyond that of NRC. The DOE also has a number of research laboratories dealing with nuclear power. The Japanese side always respected DOE’s expertise and their advice on these matters.
The American team leader was Mr. Chuck Casto of the NRC. He organized his entire team effectively with the use of humor. Mr. Casto was in his late fifties, and had a long dedicated career as a nuclear engineer. He handled the various positions of the participants with respect and moderated the meeting professionally with the effective use of jokes. The smooth running of the meetings owed much to Mr. Casto’s personality.
I considered it important for the Japanese side to take the initiative in the meetings. These Group meetings started with statements from the Japanese side with their view of the latest situation, and then the Americans gave their opinions and advice. Many of the US team members were established nuclear experts. They had various experiences and pride, but they participated in the Group meetings, paying respect to the opinions of the Japanese side and engaged in the discussions in response to the Japanese view.
However, there were also a few instances where the American experts doggedly maintained their views. The one I vividly remember was the occasion when Japanese and American opinions starkly differed over whether there was water remaining in the spent fuel pool at Unit 4. The US view was that the pool was damaged, the spent fuel rods were exposed and large amounts of radiation would be released. Based on this assumption, the US set the recommended evacuation zone for its citizens living in Japan at a radius of 50 miles (80 km) from Fukushima Daiichi.
The Japanese side was of the view, from various physical evidence, that the pool still contained water. The strongest evidence was a photograph taken on March 16 when helicopters had flown over Fukushima Daiichi to drop water. The photograph showed that the surface of the pool was gleaming. I remember that when this photograph was presented, everyone at TEPCO headquarters was excited. TEPCO nuclear engineers who had been involved with Fukushima Daiichi since it was commissioned gave a masterly presentation, using illustrations. The Japanese government and TEPCO, trapped in the myth of nuclear safety, had perhaps failed to make the most of the professionalism of such engineers . I was persuaded by their presentation. If the pool at Unit 4 had really been empty, it would have been difficult to continue emergency works at the plant. But the circumstantial evidence was all there: the pool still .
The United States, nevertheless, did not accept the evidence presented by the Japanese side. The Japanese and US teams were in complete disagreement. At this stage it was decided that we should conduct sampling of the water in the spent fuel pool at Unit 4 and analyze its chemical composition. This was on April 12. A large concrete pump truck nicknamed ‘Giraffe’ was used to collect the sample.
The sample was analyzed, but no radioactive materials were detected. If the pool was empty and the spent fuel rods exposed to the atmosphere, high levels of radioactive materials should have been detected, as the US side had maintained. However, no such proof was found. The level of radioactivity was extremely low. This data was presented to the Joint Crisis Management Coordination Group, but the US side pointed out that the water sample could have consisted of water already present in the truck’s sampling container and continued to maintain their original view: the pool . The Japanese engineers were extremely confident in their methodology and its resultant data. The atmosphere of the meeting started to become heated and the discussion looked like it could turn into an emotional confrontation. I thought this could be an opportunity to demonstrate the tremendous efforts being made by Japanese side to the Americans, and made the following proposal: “If the US side does not wish to change its view, then we shall take another sample and show the data to you again.” A few days later, a second sampling was conducted and the data showed the same results. Upon seeing these results, the Americans accepted the view of Japanese engineers.
It was important to have confirmed that water remained in the spent fuel pool at Unit 4. What is more, this incident seemed to be crucial in effecting a change in the US attitude. Until that time, the Americans had showed respect for the efforts of the Japanese side, but they might not have been completely certain whether Japan could really get the job done. But, after this debate over the Unit 4 spent fuel pool had been settled, the US side kindly showed full confidence in the words and actions of the Japanese side.
Those US friends who fought together with us to confront the seemingly unsurmountable challenge of the nuclear accident are “comrades in arms”. Since that time I have visited the United States on several occasions and engaged in discussions with Americans concerned with such issues.
The Joint Crisis Management Coordination Group continued until Fukushima Daiichi reached the status of cold shutdown. At first meetings took place twice a day, then once a day, then twice a week, and we were down to once a week or less towards the end, but still we continued to meet regularly. Several days after the status of cold shutdown was announced, those involved from both nations got together and held a quiet event to recognize our efforts. We expressed appreciation for each other’s tremendous efforts and exchanged gifts as mementoes of the occasion. Together we had managed to overcome the most difficult challenge we had faced in the history of our post-war alliance. I shall never forget that day.