Tsunami puts rare spotlight on Japan soldiers

Mon Mar 21, 2011 10:14pm EDT
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By Chisa Fujioka

KAMAISHI, Japan (Reuters) - Japan's worst crisis since World War Two has put its military under a rare spotlight as soldiers search for survivors, clear away rubble, deliver aid and help exhausted engineers avert a nuclear catastrophe.

Japan's military is constitutionally limited to defending the country, but the March 11 earthquake and tsunami coincided with a national debate over whether it can play a bigger role in the face of an assertive China and a belligerent North Korea.

The Self-Defense Forces (SDF), as Japan's military is known, has dispatched 100,000 troops to the quake-crippled northeast coast. They search flattened towns for bodies and survivors, clear roads and deliver fuel, water and other supplies.

They have also toiled for days spraying water on overheating reactors from helicopters and water cannon. Television news broadcasts show soldiers swapping green fatigues for white anti-radiation gear.

Their work is highly visible, in contrast to the erratic response of Japan's political leaders, who face public criticism for issues ranging from getting medical supplies to evacuation areas to their initial handling of the nuclear accident.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has yet to visit the devastation first hand. Local officials said it was too much of a burden to host him at first. On Monday, bad weather scrapped a visit.

Into that vacuum has stepped the military, a comforting presence amid despair and the devastation of a disaster that has left more than 21,000 dead or missing.


<p>Members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces try to recover the body of a victim found in a car amidst the ruins of a destroyed residential area in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, more than a week after the area was devastated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, March 19, 2011. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj</p>