In the days following the Great East Japan Earthquake the United States Armed Forces mobilized to aid Japan’s disaster relief efforts and launched ‘Operation Tomodachi’ (lit: Operation Friend). It has since become a large scale operation with the United States committing roughly 20,000 personnel, 20 ships and 160 aircraft to date.
Efforts so far have included distributing supplies to the disaster area, searching for missing persons off the Sanriku Coast, cleaning up rubble and debris, and restoring a landing strip at the disaster-struck Sendai Airport. The United States also provided a specialized unmanned aircraft to photograph the area around the Fukushima I reactor as the nuclear crisis unfolded.
Moved by America’s compassionate response to Japan’s situation, an anonymous former member of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) and resident of Miyagi prefecture began making plans to personally express his thanks to the United States personnel involved in Operation Tomodachi. He named his plan ‘Operation Arigatou.’
The former JGSDF member created a group on Japanese social networking site mixi to share the details of his plans and enlist the help of other users in translating a thank-you letter into English.
In the letter he addresses “all the officers and men of the United States Armed Forces participating in Operation Tomodachi” and states: “Thank you for everything you are doing for us every day. No matter how many words of gratitude I write on this paper, they will never be enough.”
He goes on to tell the story of Date Masamune, the renowned military commander who once ruled over his home of Miyagi prefecture: “In Japan we use the word ‘Date-otoko’ (lit: ‘Date’ man) to describe the type of personality that Masamune is said to have had. It’s something like saying ‘cool guy’ in English…I believe it to be an appropriate word to describe all of you who continue to support us with your heads held high.”
He also prepared pictures of the area from before the disaster to show the United States forces personnel what they were working so hard to rebuild. “When I first saw the devastation caused by this disaster I couldn’t help but cry in despair, but all of you have given me the hope that I will once again be able to see the beautiful scenes seen in these pictures.”
On April 1 he made his way to Sendai Airport—currently being used as a landing point for military aircraft—where he planned to personally thank, and deliver a copy of the letter to, everyone involved in Operation Tomodachi. There he was met by a Navy lieutenant fluent in Japanese who showed him around the airport and interpreted for him. On his blog he recalls, “Wherever I went I was greeted warmly with people saying ‘Thank you, tomodachi!’ and ‘arigatou!’”
At the lieutenant’s suggestion he was introduced to the commander in charge of operations at Sendai Airport who replied to the expression of gratitude with the words: “I’ve been with the Navy for a long time, but never have I been so honored to serve.” Though he had come to express his thanks to the United States personnel, he found himself being thanked in return.
At the end of his tour he was given a commemorative medal with the United State Marine Corps emblem and the words Semper Fidelis—“always faithful”—engraved on it. Honored, he took the medal as a priceless treasure, and Semper Fidelis as a creed to live by.
Before returning home he made his way to a nearby beach and used driftwood to write out the message ‘ARIGATO’ as a final message of thanks. Afterwards he wrote on his blog that he wasn’t expecting the message to be noticed: “It was sloppy and awkward, so I’m not sure if they’ll be able to understand it, but in any case I feel good about it.”
However, some days later he was informed of a letter written by the commanding officer of Operation Tomodachi, Robert Toss, to the American forces and Japanese people on the Yokota Air Base website:
“As we crossed the beach on a half-mile final to runway 27, I looked down and noticed the Japanese word Arigato “thank you” spelled out using 20 to 30 foot pine trees that were knocked down by the tsunami.
“Our effort here on Honshu pales in comparison to the effort put forward by the people of Japan, and when we depart, their struggle will continue. They have put forth tremendous effort in the midst of struggling for survival and searching for those lost.
“All U.S. forces that participated in Operation Tomodachi at Sendai Airport are stationed in Japan on the islands of Honshu and Okinawa. I think I can speak for them when I say it was our honor to help the people of Japan: our hosts, friends and neighbors.
“To the people of Japan: a thank you is not necessary.”
We can’t imagine how many lives have been saved by, and how many people have received strength from, the efforts of the United States forces. No matter how many times we say “thank you” it will never be enough. We can only hope that our voices of gratitude reach everyone from all of the countries who are doing what they can to support us.
[ Read in Japanese ]