It was a rescue mission, but one that years later turned the tables on victim and rescuer. Abandoned by their own government, American servicemembers who came to the aid of Japanese disaster victims will now benefit from a fund set up for them by a former prime minister.
Following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011 in Japan, it quickly became clear the rescue work needed far outstripped the capabilities of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. The tsunami, whose waves reached heights of 130 feet, crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant, shutting down its cooling system and causing a nuclear meltdown that devastated the immediate area and at one point threatened to send a radioactive cloud over much of the nation.
The United States quickly dispatched an entire aircraft carrier group, centered on the USS Ronald Reagan, some 25 ships, for what came to be known as Operation Tomadachi (Friend). The U.S. provided search and rescue, and medical aid. Thousands of American military personnel assisted Japanese people in desperate need.
But it did not take long before the problems started.
Military personnel soon began showing signs of radiation poisoning, including symptoms rare in young men and women: rectal bleeding, thyroid problems, tumors, and gynecological bleeding. Within three years of the disaster, young sailors began coming down with leukemia, and testicular and brain cancers. Hundreds of US military personnel who responded to Fukushima reported health problems related to radiation.
Some of those affected had worked in the area of the nuclear disaster, some had flown over it, many had been aboard ships that drew water out of the contaminated ocean to desalinate for drinking. All personnel were denied any special compensation by the US government, who referred back to Japanese authorities’ reports of relatively low levels of radiation, and to the military’s own protective efforts.
In a final report to Congress, the Department of Defense claimed personnel were exposed to less radiation than a person would receive during an airplane flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. The Defense Department stated due to the low levels of radiation “there is no need for a long-term medical surveillance program.”
However, five years after the disaster and more than a year after its final report, a Navy spokesperson admitted that 16 US ships from the relief effort remain contaminated. However, the Navy continued, “the low levels of radioactivity that remain are in normally inaccessible areas that are controlled in accordance with stringent procedures.”
Other Parts of the US Government Reacted Very Differently to the Threat
On March 16, five days after the meltdown, the State Department authorized the voluntary departure from Japan of eligible family members of government personnel assigned to the US Embassy in Tokyo and other State Department facilities.
Ten days later, the US military moved over 7,000 military family members out of Japan under what was also called a “voluntary departure.” The effort, codenamed Operation Pacific Passage, also relocated close to 400 military pets.
And around the same time, the American Embassy repeated a Japanese government warning to parents about radioactive iodine being detected in the Tokyo drinking water supply. Tokyo is about 150 miles away from the Fukushima disaster site.
US Servicemembers Sue the Nuclear Plant Owner
After receiving no help from their own government, in 2013 a group of US servicemembers (now numbering 400; seven others have died while the lawsuit winds its way through the courts) filed a lawsuit against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the owner of the nuclear plant) seeking more than two billion dollars.
The suit contends TEPCO lied about the threat to those helping out after the nuclear disaster, withholding some information and downplaying the dangers. The suit requests $40 million in compensatory and punitive damages for each plaintiff. It also requests a fund for health monitoring and medical expenses of one billion dollars.
It is unclear when the lawsuit will reach a decision point, one which, if it implicates TEPCO, will then begin another long legal journey through the appeals process. A resolution will take years.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi Steps Up
However, while the US government seemingly abandoned its servicemembers, and TEPCO hides behind lawyers, one unlikely person has stepped up to offer at least some monetary help with victims’ medical bills: former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Koizumi left office five years before the Fukushima disaster, but has what many feel is a sense of national guilt over how the Americans were treated. In May 2016, Koizumi broke down in tears as he made an emotional plea of support for US Navy sailors beset by health problems, saying “US military personnel who did their utmost in providing relief are now suffering from serious illnesses. We cannot ignore the situation.”
The former prime minister had become a vocal opponent of nuclear energy after the Fukushima meltdown. He responded to a request from a group supporting the TEPCO lawsuit plaintiffs and flew to the United States to meet with the veterans.
Then, just this week, on September 8, Koizumi told reporters he has set up a special fund to collect private donations for the former service members, with the goal of collecting one million dollars. Koizumi has already raised $400,000 through lecture fees.
“I felt I had to do something to help those who worked so hard for Japan,” he said. “Maybe this isn’t enough, but it will express our gratitude, that Japan is thankful.”
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.