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Asahi - Shadow Units (15)

PROMETHEUS TRAP/ 'Shadow units' (15): SDF members in protective gear worried local residents


April 05, 2013





Editor's note: This is the 15th part of a new series that has run in the past under the title of The Prometheus Trap. This series deals with the secret missions assigned to the “shadow units” of the Ground Self-Defense Force when the Fukushima nuclear disaster was unfolding following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. The series will appear on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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Despite the best efforts of the Self-Defense Forces to help local residents in the wake of the 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, unexpected barriers arose that delayed the work.

On March 16, 2011, the 1st Airborne Brigade of the Ground SDF's Central Readiness Force received an order to rescue residents from afflicted areas of Fukushima Prefecture. The brigade is the only parachute unit in Japan, but the approximately 1,700 brigade members were dispatched to Fukushima with a different mission.

At that time, a directive had been issued to residents living between a radius of 20 kilometers to 30 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 plant to remain indoors. Brigade members were instructed to rescue those residents who could not evacuate on their own in the event a major abnormality arose at the Fukushima plant.

The commander of the 1st Airborne Brigade was Maj. Gen. Tetsuro Yamanoue, 52. He issued instructions to compile a list of all residents, including senior citizens, who would be unable to evacuate by themselves.

"Make preparations so we can rescue everyone without leaving anyone behind," Yamanoue told his subordinates.

Brigade members initially contacted local governments to obtain detailed information about residents, such as any illnesses they had, the level of elderly care required and whether caregivers would also have to be evacuated at the same time. The lack of information meant SDF members themselves had to visit individual homes to collect the needed data.

Lt. Col. Toshio Akabane, 54, was a regiment commander of the 1st Airborne Brigade. His regiment established its base in Iitate, about 40 kilometers northwest of the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

He had the 400 or so members of his regiment divide into groups of five to first visit homes in Minami-Soma to gather information about those requiring special assistance.

It was during such a visit that Akabane encountered some of the problems that arose in dealing with local residents.

An elderly woman wearing a jacket was walking by herself. Akabane got out of his dark green four-wheel-drive vehicle. In talking to the woman, the regiment commander tried to soften his tone.

"Hello," he said.

"Are you from the SDF?" the woman replied.

"That's right."

"We were instructed not to go outdoors, but that causes various problems."

Although it was Akabane who wanted to collect information from the woman, she fired questions at Akabane.

"Why are SDF members dressed like that?" she asked. "Is this area that dangerous?"

Akabane and his regiment members wore white protective gear and face masks to prevent inhaling radioactive materials or having them stick to their bodies.

Trying not to further alarm the woman, Akabane tried his best to reassure her there was no major danger to worry about. Still, he could not help but feel that he did not sound very convincing.

With the SDF members wearing protective gear and the local residents who had to be helped in everyday clothing, Akabane felt the situation should have been reversed.

The conversation was but one example of the difficulty of communication between the two sides. Not only was it becoming difficult to compile the list of residents in need of assistance, but the SDF members were spending most of their time trying to assuage the suspicions held by local residents.

Akabane felt a different approach was needed.

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