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Japan seeks to bolster mental health of defense personnel responding to disasters

Felix Kim

Japan’s Ministry of Defense is focusing attention on the mental health of its personnel and those within the ranks of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), outlining measures designed to mitigate post-traumatic stress associated with disaster response deployments.

The contributions of the nation’s defense personnel to disaster response operations are vital to saving lives and protecting property, Tetsuo Kotani, a professor of international relations at Meikai University near Tokyo, told FORUM. There have been about 200 such deployments each year since the JSDF responded to a January 1995 earthquake near Kobe that killed more than 6,000 people — an operation that garnered lasting public esteem for the country’s defense forces. (Pictured: Japan Self-Defense Forces personnel conduct a search in Atami in July 2021 after torrential rain triggered a mudslide in the city.)

“According to a recent opinion poll, 90% of the Japanese general public think the Self-Defense Forces are the most reliable, trusted governmental organizations in Japan,” Kotani said.

Those deployments, however, can also take a toll on the mental health of the personnel involved, according to a research team led by Masanori Nagamine, a professor of psychiatry and industrial public health at Japan’s National Defense Medical College. In the largest such operation — the response of more than 100,000 JSDF personnel to the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 — the researchers found that service members who spent more than three months in disaster-stricken areas or worked long hours for more than three months after returning from such areas were at a 60% to 70% increased risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

With such deployments likely to continue in disaster-prone Japan, Nagamine’s research team recommended “paying special attention to the needs of personnel with personal experience” of disaster response.

Japan’s latest defense white paper, issued by the Defense Ministry in July 2021, outlined the efforts underway to address mental health issues associated with disaster deployments, including the training of unit commanders by mental health planning officers and other specialists. Additionally, “continual mental health checks” are being conducted on service members “immediately after the end of deployments,” noted the white paper, titled “Defense of Japan 2021.”

Mental health consultations are available around-the-clock to all Defense Ministry and JSDF service members, with six levels ranging from consultations between personnel and supervisors to psychiatric examinations, according to the Defense Ministry. In a statement, the Defense Ministry encouraged service members to request such consultations as needed, noting that “relying on others in difficult situations is strength, not weakness.”

Service members can also get assistance from the Self-Defense Forces Central Hospital in Tokyo, which houses the Department of Mental Rehabilitation. According to the hospital, the department “provides support for recovery from disaster stress disorders of SDF personnel, support for reinstatement of SDF personnel and Ministry of Defense staff, and support for prevention of recurrence of mental disorders.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.



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