A soldier with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force sets up a perimeter during a simulated beach assault at Marine Corps Base Hawaii with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Unit during the multi-national military exercise RIMPAC in Kaneohe, Hawaii, in July 2016. Photo: Reuters/ Hugh Gentry

Japan’s brand-new “Marines” – or to give them their proper title, the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade – were activated on March 27. This is no small feat.

In 2011 the word “amphibious” was virtually taboo in Japan. Such operations were considered “offensive” and unconstitutional. Officers proposing a Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) with amphibious capability risked a career-ending savaging by leftist politicians and leftist media.

There wasn’t much support within the Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) either, given its dominance of the so-called “Hokkaido Mafia” – armor officers focused on repelling an unlikely Russian invasion of the northern island.

Still, some GSDF and Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) reformers realized that Japan, an island nation, needed an amphibious force to properly defend itself – particularly its southern islands that China covets. But they could not speak too loudly.

Some US Marines noted this as well. A Marine Corps-like GSDF unit, able to move fast and operate ashore, afloat, and in the air was needed to meet the requirements of Japan’s geography, and related threats.

Motivating forces

When the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck, the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s lack of an amphibious unit cost lives. When the US Marines’ 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit landed on Oshima island in Operation Tomodachi, reformers among the Ground Self Defense Force ensured that the Japanese media were there to see it.

But after that operation wound down, momentum for an amphibious unit evaporated. Fortunately, some things happened.

A group of Pacific-based US Marines had been angling for years to place an officer in Tokyo, where he would have the freedom and latitude to explain and promote the Marine Corps – and better yet – create a Japanese amphibious capability. GSDF reformers had wanted a US Marine in place as early as 2009, but US Marine Corps bureaucracy is difficult.

Finally in mid-2011, a major at the Marine Forces Pacific headquarters in Honolulu wrangled an agreement from both sides to place a liaison officer at the GSDF’s Ground Research Development Center on the outskirts of Tokyo. This was where the Japanese Army thought up new ideas – and was far enough from GSDF Headquarters in Ichigaya to attract no attention.

The colonel assigned was yours truly. Having lived in Japan for 20 years, I knew the key reformers and had been recalled to active duty for Operation Tomodachi, so it made sense to stick around.

In fact, assigning a Marine to the JSDF in Tokyo was so sensitive the GSDF asked that we not tell anyone: A US Marine helping Japan assemble an amphibious capability would have been the worst kind of news. Alliance managers on both sides would have howled.

Even sensible people on both sides said an amphibious capability was impossible. It conjured up images of Japan’s World War II invasions and was deemed “offensive” and so was claimed by leftist politicians – inaccurately, it turned out – to be unconstitutional.

There were three main reasons for an amphibious JSDF. First, it was an essential capability to defend Japan’s southern islands, and when the next natural disaster hit, would save lives. Second, it would force JSDF services to cooperate – thus addressing JSDF’s fundamental weakness. Third, it would make the JSDF a more useful ally.

We weren’t looking to transform the JSDF and we didn’t want a separate “Marine Corps.” An amphibious team would be enough. To make it relevant, we described what sort of amphibious force was required to defend Japan’s southern islands – and how to bring it about.

We pointed out that JSDF already had 90% of the hardware, but none of the know-how – they’d forgotten everything they’d learnt in the Pacific War. US Marines could provide that. JSDF needed to reorganize what they already had. And it wasn’t expensive.

I put these ideas into a 4,000-word paper – and injected it into the GSDF/JSDF bloodstream via certain reformers. It was nothing they didn’t know, but a foreigner saying these things provided cover.

A colonel at the Ground Research Development Center was the key player. He arranged GRDC study trips to Okinawa and Sasebo to see the Marine/Navy amphibious team. Riding in an amphibious assault vehicle in the ocean is nauseating – so why did we push GSDF to buy them? Aside from being a useful vehicle, using it would force the GSDF and MSDF to cooperate.

Other GSDF groups (with a few Japanese Navy and Air Force tagging along) went to Okinawa and Sasebo. They returned converted.

GSDF Chief of Staff Eiji Kimizuka was a long-time acquaintance. He needed little convincing and made amphibious capability a top priority, having seen the Americans in action during Operation Tomodachi. His deputy, Lt-General Koichiro Bansho, was the principal GSDF reformer.

Things fell into place.

An idea whose time had come

Experiences gained by the Okinawa-based commander of the Marine III Expeditionary Force during Tomodachi led him to focus on the GSDF and his operations officer persisted even as Japanese rebuffed his invitations to come and learn about amphibious operations. Anyone else would have given up. But he didn’t.

Okinawa dispatched a Marine liaison officer to the GSDF’s Western Army, from which the amphibious force would emerge. The Marine attaché at the Tokyo Embassy saw the amphibious effort as more interesting than his regular job and pitched in, making what I did doubly effective. The Deputy Commander at US Forces Japan (a Marine general), kept the pests away on the US side.

We also educated certain Japanese politicians and the press – local and foreign. Oddly, the reporters who got it best were from one of Japan’s leading leftist papers. And I knew we were on track when Japan Newsweek ran a cover story, “Can Japan defend the Senkakus?”

Support from the Japanese Navy was essential. Retired Vice Admiral Hideaki Kaneda, a former commander of the Self Defense Fleet, was indispensable. He was forward thinking on amphibious matters and provided introductions to certain MSDF officers so we could make the pitch.

Backing from the then-commander of the Self Defense Fleet, and soon after, the head of the Joint Staff, was obviously helpful. And the admiral assigned to head up the “amphib” effort took it seriously – and went out of his way to cooperate with the GSDF.

US Naval Forces Japan and 7th Fleet support in nudging the MSDF along was vital. An American professor and former US Navy minesweeper commander – well respected by the MSDF – put in good words.

The JSDF made quick progress because they didn’t follow the US approach. No weighty powerpoint decks, complex plans or “milestones’ requiring umpteen approvals. This was key to build momentum so neither Americans nor the leftist Asahi Shimbun could stop them.

Japan invades California

Japanese soldiers had been participating in “Iron Fist” exercises with US Marines in California since 2006 – but without any involvement of the MSDF. Getting the MSDF and GSDF to participate in the “Dawn Blitz” exercise in California in 2013 was the coming-out party.

This called for three MSDF ships with GSDF aboard to sail across the Pacific and conduct amphibious landings while training with the US Marines and US Navy. A Japanese admiral was deployed. When the Marines from I MEF in California invited the MSDF to Dawn Blitz, I’m told an admiral in the Maritime Staff Office offered up three ships after about five minutes thought – unheard of.

I worried that it would be canceled as Japan hadn’t done anything like this since World War II. In fact, Beijing demanded the exercise be canceled. President Barack Obama told the Chinese, “No.”

What came to mind watching the Japanese ships offshore during the last day’s landings? “Now they (the Japanese) won’t go down without a fight.” And “The Americans will finally have to treat them like equals.” The exercise went off well. It was like watching history.

The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade is the outcome of these exercises. To go from a glaring lack of capability in 2011 to a rudimentary capability in 2013 – a span of just 24 months – is a real achievement. With the groundwork laid, the subsequent five years leading up to today’s unit activation were marked by further training, organization, assignment, configuration and procurement.

Vice Joint Chief of Staff, Lt General Koichi Isobe, a graduate of USMC Command and Staff College and one of the reformers, commented: “I never would have imagined.”

Oddly, there was more opposition to an amphibious JSDF from the American side. This was partly because the Americans hadn’t “blessed” the idea. There were even concerns at Pacific Command that if the Japanese went amphibious, they might attack somebody.

Washington seemed mystified that somebody below Assistant Secretary level might have an idea, much less show initiative. Fortunately, General Wallace Gregson, the recently retired Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, and former commander of Marine forces in Asia/Pacific provided some protection.

The US Marine Corps was not well briefed. Even at my own headquarters, Marine Forces Pacific, the most senior commander couldn’t always see the value of our efforts, and at one point wanted to terminate them. Admiral Kawano and General Bansho helped change his mind.

So, it happened. What was the key learning? A naval analyst in Washington asked me how I had overcome all the obstacles. My answer: “I didn’t ask permission.”

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