Kongo Versus the Earthquake

Japan’s military rescue dog is a canine hero—and a hard lesson in reform

Kongo Versus the Earthquake Kongo Versus the Earthquake
This story originally appeared on Feb. 27, 2014. This month marks the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Much of the country,... Kongo Versus the Earthquake

This story originally appeared on Feb. 27, 2014.

This month marks the third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Much of the country, myself included, felt the shaking that day—but it was the subsequent tsunami that did the most damage.

On March 11, 2011, the sea swept across 217 square miles of Japan’s Pacific coast. The surge smashed Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures in the northeast Tohoku region, killing 15,884 people.

Rescuers from the police, coast guard and fire service descended on the region. They worked in terrible conditions, bogged down by mud, gagged by foul smells and mostly unable to relieve themselves.

Japan’s military was by far the largest organization on the ground. The Self-Defense Forces deployed 100,000 relief workers—the largest operation in SDF history. And one that highlighted unfortunate military shortfalls. The SDF lacked unmanned drones, runway clearing equipment and temporary bridges.

And the military had just two rescue dogs. Kongo was a black and tan German Shepherd. Myoken was a black German Shepherd. Both were boys. Pressed into service in the worst conditions imaginable, the two pups worked hard to find survivors. Sick and possibly heartbroken, Kongo soon died, leaving his pal Myoken to soldier on.

This is their story.

Cover of Misa Sakurabayashi’s Arigatou Kongoumaru, showing Kongo at work in Tohoku. Wani Books image, Chuugoku Shinbum photo

Where were all the dogs?

Dogs are an essential tool in the vital first 72 hours after a disaster, during which rescuers still have a chance of pulling survivors from the rubble. There were many canine rescue teams in Tohoku, but most of them were entirely civilian.

The Japan Kennel Club alone provided 43 rescue dogs. International teams brought in another 42 canines. By contrast, the military could only send Kongo and Myoken.

To be clear, the Japanese military has many dogs. The air force and navy have employed guard dogs since 1961 and 1981, respectively. Today the canine force numbers nearly 300. But they’re all strictly guards.

Guard dogs and search-and-rescue dogs possess very different skills. Whereas guard dogs check scents by pressing their noses to a surface, rescue dogs “air-scent.” They keep their heads high to hunt for odors.

They also search without any previous scent to guide them. They have to be intuitive—and also calm enough to work closely with stressed-out people in chaotic, dangerous environments. Guard dogs, by contrast, are best in controlled spaces, where they can go from rest to attack with a single clear command.

Bottom line, guard dogs and rescue dogs are very different kinds of pups. And in the quake’s aftermath, the SDF’s hundreds of canine guards had little to contribute.

Kongo and Myoken, however, were in their element. But the scale of the disaster was overwhelming to the hard-working animals. There were too few of them for too many square miles of dense debris and too many thousands of lost and injured—but mostly dead.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Services estimates that one rescue dog can do the work of 35 human searchers, as the canine can smell a survivor—or a dead body—a quarter-mile away. Dogs are a disaster relief force multiplier.

So why were there so few rescue dog teams in the SDF?

Because the SDF is an army in everything but name. Its main purpose is to defend Japan with armed force. Helping out after a natural disaster is important, but still secondary to waging war.

So naturally, the SDF favored guard dogs over rescue dogs. And when disaster struck, it had just the two rescue pups at one navy facility.

Aftermath of the 1995 Kobe quake. Wikipedia photo

Dogs of Kobe

Japan’s short rescue-dog history began with the Hanshin earthquake in January 1995. The quake hit Kobe and Awaji in the Kansai region of Japan in the early morning and, in just 20 seconds, destroyed the public’s faith in the government at the time.

Before 1995, the Japanese government liked to boast of its superior technological preparedness for handling earthquakes. This involved beefing up infrastructure according to seismic hazard maps—the same maps that underestimated the risk of a major earthquake in Tohoku.

The disaster paralyzed the government. Citizens organized themselves, unable to wait for local governments to call up the SDF. Meanwhile foreign countries contacted the central government with offers of assistance, but Tokyo seemed both reluctant and unable to put aside bureaucratic barriers to let in the aid.

Japan had no search dogs of its own—and quarantine regulations stranded a Swiss canine team in quarantine for three days, entirely wasting the initial 72 hours when help could actually, well, help.

More than 6,000 people died in the Kobe earthquake. Many might still be alive had the government been better prepared.

The public was furious. A desperate Tokyo implemented broad reforms to streamline international assistance in the event of a disaster. But somehow no one saw fit to address the much-publicized lack of rescue dogs.

Japan’s fed-up citizens took up rescue-dog development all on their own. Grassroots organizations have built up large registers of pets-turned-rescue dogs. Local police forces stay in touch with the dogs’ handlers for potential call-up. The result is a flexible force of around 300 dogs that costs the government essentially nothing.

On the down side, Japan lacks any kind of national standard for its rescue dogs. Few of the pups have any deployment experience and the bureaucratic call-up process can take a long time.

A U.S. Navy helicopter delivers supplies to 2011 tsunami survivors. U.S. Navy photo

Kure pioneers

That’s why, in 2011, the SDF’s two rescue dogs were so special. But Kongo and Myoken technically were guard dogs at the navy’s Kure Repair and Supply Facility Oil Depot in Yoshiura, Hiroshima prefecture.

It’s an old place, in almost continuous operation since 1932. The depot supplied oil to the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II and, postwar, also fueled the U.S. and British navies before returning to a strictly Japanese military role.

The depot is of uniquely strategic importance and thus needs a strong security force. The facility has 20 patrol dogs alongside high-tech security sensors.

In a prescient move, in 2006 the Kure security team began cross-training its guard dogs for disaster relief. The depot was an ideal training ground. The teams piled the facility’s ample free space with concrete and steel to simulate wrecked buildings. Most dog breeds are naturally afraid of confined spaces, so the team also commandeered some nearby tunnels for additional training.

Kure’s facilities are some of the best in the country, so the depot invited the police and fire services as well as some NGOs to train there. The non-profits included the Rescue Dog Training Association, a Japanese branch of the Austria-based Internationale Rettungshundeorganisation, or IRO.

The IRO maintains one of the toughest internationally-recognized rescue dog qualifications in the world as part of the U.N.’s International Search and Rescue Advisory Group. The group tests dogs and their handlers under exceptional stress. Just 20 percent pass.

Kongo and Myoken each beat the test twice. They were that good.

Kongo was born in a dog training school in the small town of Furukawa in Miyagi prefecture on April 11, 2007. Search and rescue was in his blood. His father worked as a rescue dog following the Iwate-Miyagi Nairiku earthquake of 2008.

Once Kongo had been weaned, he attended a training school in Saitama prefecture close to Tokyo, where he received his formal first name, Chorus vom Ewigwind. But let’s just call him Kongo.

Kongo’s big break came on Jan. 25, 2008, when he attended recruitment trials at the Kure depot. Even at nine months old, the pup was noticeably intelligent. The SDF signed him on.

A week later he had a new nickname, as did his new partner, a recruit soon to be called Myoken. The two dogs were nearly the same age—Myoken was born just two days before Kongo. Their handlers didn’t have a clue that they were about to rewrite the book on Japanese military rescue dogs.

Former navy chief of staff Masahiko Sugimoto, then commanding Kure district, named both dogs. Sugimoto harked back to navy tradition, borrowing the names of national sites of natural and spiritual significance. Kongo is a mountain in Osaka, Myoken a mountain in Hyogo. Both have exceptionally long-standing Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

The name Kongo also has a long naval tradition. Three war vessels have taken the name Kongo—a 19th-century ironclad, a World War II battleship and a current-day missile destroyer. Regular War is Boring readers will also be familiar with another dog named Kongo, who served in Manchuria with the Kwangtung Army and whose story shares more than a passing resemblance to that of the latter-day Kongo.

Tsunami debris litters the coast in 2011. ChiefHira photo

Making the grade

Kongo was rare even among rescue dogs. Exceptionally intelligent, he took part in difficult obstacle trials and became champion of Chugoku region. He was also incredibly friendly without losing his ability to be aggressive on command. His handler Ryoichi Matsumoto fondly recalled the 2008 Kure District Summer Festival, where Kongo surprised him by rolling over to play with visiting children.

As a team, Kongo and Myoken were inseparable.

Wearing collars with bells, they learned the essentials of urban search and rescue—catching scents, ignoring distracting noises and smells, communicating with each other. No one could have imagined that these two dogs would be such naturals at such difficult work, but in December 2009 they attended the RDTA-run IRO qualification examination and passed. On their first attempt.

They took the test again the next year and passed again. This time Kongo passed with a higher grade of B—indicating advanced—while Myoken passed with an A grade, meaning intermediate.

But the dogs had yet to actually practice their skills in a real disaster. They continued to train hard, conducting joint operations with the regional fire services and learning how to deploy on navy hovercraft from the wells of Oosumi-class landing ships. They were trailblazers not only for the military, but also among the largely amateur volunteers that comprised Japan’s rescue dog force.

That all changed on March 11, 2011.

As aftershocks rocked eastern Japan, the handlers readied their dogs and equipment. In the evening, the team boarded a high-speed boat to Iwakuni air base and hopped onto an aging YS-11 transport plane. Kure Oil Depot Chief of Security Capt. Yasuhiro Morita led the six-man team.

Like a cop movie cliché, Morita was due for retirement in November 2011. He was a former army ranger instructor reduced to manning a desk in a navy oil yard.

His team was an odd mish-mash. There was Kongo and Myoken plus their two handlers, Ministry of Defense civilian personnel Ryoichi Matsumoto and Yutaka Fujii—both of whom had been scared of dogs before falling into their current positions.

A younger handler, Hideki Mori, was also on hand for backup. The team had two sailors in a supporting role: PO-1 Hirai on signals and PO-2 Murakawa coordinating logistical support.

MH-53E No. 21, the Iwakuni-based helicopter that carried Kongo and Myoken north to Tohoku. Ahoya photo

Bringing in the volunteers

The dawn flight touched down at Atsugi air base near Tokyo and the team switched to a 111st Squadron MH-53E helicopter and waited for more passengers—two teams from the RDTA.

The country was at a stand-still. Tsunami warnings covered the Pacific coastline from Hokkaido to Kyushu. The police guided traffic in widespread blackouts. The expressways had shut down to make way for scores of military vehicles. Through it all, there were the aftershocks.

By the time RDTA climbed aboard the chopper at 9:00 AM, there had already been 222 aftershocks exceeding magnitude five, two of which where over 7.5.

The RDTA had been preparing all night following call-up from the Kanagawa Prefectural Police Department. They dispatched two three-dog, four-person teams led respectively by Michio Yamada, a retired Kure naval base commanding officer, and doctor and U.N. advisory group team leader Teruaki Tamagawa.

Among them was the IRO’s number-four dog Eros with his handler, RDTA chief Hidehiro Murase.

The MH-53E took off at 10:00 AM. The 95-minute journey took it over a landscape reclaimed by the sea. The heater inside the helicopter was broken, but the frigid air inside the chopper was nothing compared to the conditions on the ground.

The team arrived at Kasuminome airfield near Sendai, Miyagi, and disembarked amid a swarm of CH-47 helicopters carrying supplies to isolated pockets of survivors. It was as though the entire country had mobilized.

The earthquake was an unprecedented military problem for Japan. The initial search-and-rescue force comprised 8,400 personnel and 190 aircraft. By March 26, Prime Minister Naoto Kan had mobilized almost half of the SDF’s manpower—107,000 of 250,000.

Unlike the Kobe earthquake and the 2010 Canterbury earthquake in New Zealand, the 2011 quake and tsunami swept mud and water across the ruined landscape, drowning many of those who might have otherwise have found pockets of air in the rubble.

Rescuers found few survivors. The tally of confirmed deaths doubled each day. Worse still, Tohoku is home to many SDF bases, so many first-responders were unsure of their own loved ones’ safety. For many troops on the ground, it was their first time handling corpses.

The quake was first blood for a military that has never been to battle. The SDF goes out of its way to avoid fighting. Even during U.N. peacekeeping operations, Japanese law limits its deployment to only the most peaceful locations. When the army went to Iraq for two years starting in 2004, it fired only two bullets—both negligent discharges in a single incident.

No one has adequately told the story of the SDF’s attempts to care for its members’ mental health. The reason is, in part, cultural. There is extraordinary pressure on SDF members to show restraint and persevere. A month after the end of the disaster-relief mission, the MoD surveyed the three branches’ mental health.

The survey identified high risk of post-traumatic stress among 3.3 percent of the army, 4.3 percent of the navy and 7.5 percent of the air force. For depression, the survey gave figures of 2.2 percent for army, 6.8 percent for air force and none for the navy.

But the survey was not anonymous—and that surely reduced honest reporting. A year after the disaster, the Nikkei Shinbum newspaper reported only five confirmed post-traumatic stress sufferers in the entire SDF. The real total is surely much, much greater.

The conditions in which the military and other rescuers worked were undeniably awful. Many rescue workers forwent basic comforts out of deference to the survivors. The SDF lived in tents, cooked its own food and worked without toilet breaks.

The military worked four and a half months to recover the dead. Bodies decomposed, bloated and came away at the bone, making the job harder and more horrifying by the day.

Human rescuers left exhausted. Dogs, too.

Quake damage in 1995. Wikipedia photo

Partners

From Kasuminome, the navy and RDTA canine rescue teams loaded their dogs and supplies into 12-ton army trucks. But there was a problem. In their focus on making sure the dogs had everything they needed, the navy team hadn’t packed enough supplies for themselves. An army coordinator donated rations.

Kasuminome was a forward base for the relief effort. The soldiers at the base had given away their own fresh food and supplies to the survivors and were living off ration packs. Food was pouring in from across the country, but the army kept none of it. The abundance of food meant that the army could afford to supply the rescue dog teams.

Their food crisis averted, the teams piled into the trucks. Police escorted them the Miyagi Prefectural Police Academy in the hard-hit city of Natori, just south of Sendai. Under local police command, they sat on standby awaiting orders until 10:30 at night.

Despite their readiness, the navy rescuers couldn’t deploy until the next day—almost 48 hours into the “golden” 72 hours. They were under police command, but their police superiors were unable to contact local city authorities and coordinate where to send the dogs.

In the late afternoon, there was a chilling radio announcement. “At around 15:30, there was an explosion at the number one reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.” Anxiety rippling through the team … until Morita took action.

During his long service in the army, Morita had completed the training course at the army chemical school in Saitama. The school prepares first-responders for incidents like the sarin attack in Tokyo in 1995.

Other Saitama grads hurried to Fukushima to help handle the nuclear crisis. With his own background in radiological, chemical and biological warfare, Morita gathered his people and called over the RDTA teams for a briefing. It had the effect of calming everyone down.

Their orders for the next morning arrived late that night. There was nothing to do but sleep—however difficult that might be for the nervous rescuers. And all night, Kongo’s handler couldn’t help but think there was something wrong with his canine companion.

Petzel, a search and rescue dog with the Fairfax County rescue team, in Unosumai on Mar. 17, 2011. Jeremy Lock photo

Dead ends

On the morning of March 13, the navy team returned to Wakabayashi ward, Sendai, close to Kasuminome airfield. It’s a central district, easily accessible—and first-responders had already sifted through the rubble. Still, as aftershocks rumbled and tsunami warnings blared, Morita’s team conducted their search.

The dogs had never trained for post-tsunami conditions. Worst of all for the canine rescuers, Onagawa was still swamped. Rubble traps air and allows scents to blow through, but the tsunami waters, streaked with foul-smelling slime, washed away any useful odors and made it harder for the dogs to sense people amid the pungent ocean detritus.

Working their way through Wakabayashi, the dogs didn’t bark once. By lunch, everyone understood that the pups had little chance of success in such conditions.

But they continued to search. Maybe, somewhere beneath the mud, trees and overturned boats, there might be someone waiting for help.

That afternoon, they requested to be sent somewhere other rescuers had yet to arrive. The disaster had flooded, blocked and swept away roads everywhere within a couple of miles of the coastline, particularly around the isolated Oshika peninsula. That seemed like as good a place as any to hunt for survivors.

The team returned to nearby Kasuminome airfield and boarded a CH-47 bound for Onagawa, a town at the neck of the peninsula which saw some of the highest tsunami inundation. The Miyagi Prefectural Police Riot Squad deployed along with them.

The town sits in a cove on the Sanriku coastline, and its contours funneled the water higher and higher. The tsunami toppled buildings, threw boats atop five-story buildings and crushed cars together. It was horrific.

Morita’s team sought out the local emergency headquarters in Onagawa Daini Elementary School. The school sat on the high ground above the town. A gymnasium doubled as a refugee shelter until late into the summer.

The team chatted with survivors, hoping for clues about where to search. Then Kongo started barking.

“A survivor?” Matsumoto rushed over to check, calling into the debris field. Kongo continued to a signal a survivor. Reaching the dog, Matsumoto heaved aside some rubble and found a man and a woman—both dead. His heart sank.

When Kongo started barking again some time later, Matsumoto knew not to get his hopes up. Another dead woman.

They were too late.

Kongo and Myoken didn’t bark again that day. They worked through the afternoon and early evening and caught the final flight back to Natori. Morita’s team found no one alive. Too much ground to cover. Too few teams. Too few survivors.

As the navy rescuers waited for their chopper, an army search party of some 50 soldiers arrived. Recognizing Morita’s army uniform, they struck up conversation. Morita directed them toward a train carriage up in the hills. Lots of bodies waiting there.

On the night of March 13, Morita approached Matsumoto and asked him what was wrong with Kongo. The dog had suffered from diarrhea on the flight back to Kasuminome. He was not well.

The rescuers debated benching Kongo, but the dog seemed more eager than ever to work. Morita and Matsumoto also worried that separating Kongo and Myoken would distress both dogs. The pups needed each other.

Aside from Kongo’s internal problems, the two dogs both had cuts from walking on nails, wood, rocks and shattered glass. One dog belonging to the two-canine team from South Korea had gotten eight needles stuck in his leg and had to evacuate.

Perhaps Morita and Matsumoto should have sent Kongo home, too.

The gymnasium that became a refugee shelter on the grounds of Onagawa Daini Elementary School. James Simpson photo

Survivors

On March 14, the navy team deployed alongside the Teruaki Tamagawa’s RDTA team and the local riot squad. They set off at 9:00 AM for town of Watari, south of the Abukuma River. The town’s tall, thick sea wall had done nothing to stop the sea from washing inland.

The group divided the district along the main road and set to work. The RDTA team got first wind of survivors. Local residents told them about an old lady they thought might still be alive in her home. With the riot squad in support, Tamagawa and his team slogged through knee-deep mud to a building with a red roof.

“Is anybody home?” a rescuer shouted.

An elderly lady opened the paper screen blind on the second floor. She wasn’t alone. Her husband had a slipped disc and couldn’t walk. They had survived for three days on bottled green tea and tea cakes but were running short.

Tamagawa’s team made sure the elderly couple had something to eat and drink—water, snacks and steamed cakes. The team guided the old lady down to the first floor where a riot policeman lifted her onto his back to take her across the muddy ground to safety. He was still knee-deep in sludge when at 11:00 the police radio crackled, “Tsunami alert! Evacuate to safety!”

Tamagawa was outside with the old lady and the riot policeman and couldn’t get back to the old couple’s house. The team pressed on.

Meanwhile, try as it might, the rest of the team hadn’t been able to get the old man down the stairs to safety without hurting him. A riot policeman stayed behind on the second floor with the old man to wait for more help. Now they worried another tsunami might sweep away the house.

A helicopter flew overhead. “A wave is rising up!” a voice blared from the chopper. The police radio put the height at eight meters. The dog team and old woman ducked into an intact house and waited anxiously.

The radio sounded once again. There had been an explosion in the number-three reactor of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, just 40 miles away. The wind blew. “This must be the nuclear storm,” Tamagawa joked.

Nobody laughed.

The tsunami ripped through buildings, leaving only concrete and steel frames. James Simpson photo

Safe and sound

Luckily, the tsunami never materialized in Arakawa. At 12:08, the RDTA team recommenced its search and bumped into Morita with an army truck in tow. He had encountered the army patrol by chance and took advantage of the opportunity to help to the elderly man, who was now on the roof of his home with the riot policeman.

During his time in the army, Morita had been a ranger instructor with the 1st Airborne Brigade at Camp Narashino. He knew ropes. Using the single line he had on him, Morita lashed the old man to his back and carried him down a ladder and over to the truck, pausing only to clamber over a fallen tree.

Morita returned to his team. The dogs were covered in mud, their paws and legs were stained with blood from walking over nails and glass. Despite their obvious discomfort, the pups soldiered on.

But the dogs didn’t find anyone that day, either. The rescuers pulled out at 5:00 PM for the hour-long journey back to the police academy. Seventy-two hours had passed and the team had not found any survivors in the rubble.

It took another three days for the team to get back home. When their helicopter touched down at Atsugi on March 17, the rescuers stepped onto the tarmac to find ranks of navy personnel standing at salute. If that is where the story had ended, it would have been perfect.

Kongo and Myoken made it home safely. Kure’s commanding officer recommended both dogs for an award collar and gave the pups a kilogram of beef as a bonus. The canine pair became local celebrities. But while Myoken continued with his work in Kure, the navy pulled Kongo from training.

The diarrhea that the team had noticed in Tohoku hadn’t stopped. There were other small signs that Kongo’s health was failing. His handlers could see it, but Kongo kept his illness well-hidden. He was always eager to go out and train. Being kept from the action infuriated him. Sitting in his kennel overlooking the training ground, he barked and howled in protest.

Worried that Kongo’s agitation would make him even sicker, his handlers moved him to a more isolated location up in the hills behind the base. But the hero dog never recovered.

Kongo didn’t eat his breakfast on Aug. 9. He was limp, exhausted. Matsumoto rushed him to the hospital, where the vets kept Kongo under observation. The next morning was his last.

Kongo died from acute pneumonia at the age of four years and four months—just half the average retirement age of sentry dogs.

After his death, Kongo was enshrined at a new Shinto memorial for guard dogs at his home base in Kure. Four other dogs from the base who had died that year were also enshrined in the Dec. 8 ceremony, but only Kongo received a posthumous award collar for his death in the line of duty.

Kongo’s handler Matsumoto told the Chuugoku Shinbum that he would always remember the “eager manner in which he keep at this duties, head down.”

“There are very few dogs so suited as a rescue dog,” Matsumoto added.

Kongo shortly before his death. Ishizaki Animal Hospital photo

Unanswered questions

Kongo’s story first came to the public’s attention in the work of Misa Sakurabayashi, who has made a name for herself as a chronicler of positive stories about the SDF in various publications belonging to the nationalist Sankei group.

Working in a male-dominated field, Sakurabayashi stands out not only for being a woman, but also for writing heartfelt military human-interest stories.

They need to be told. Civil-military relations in Japan are strained. Many people consider the SDF an unconstitutional tax-thief and an unwelcome reminder of Japan’s militarist past. Many newspapers report with relish on every misdeed by SDF members.

But the earthquake put the SDF in the spotlight, this time as heroes—and it’s thanks to reporters like Sakurabayashi that the SDF is enjoying an image boost—and all the recruitment benefits that entails. But balance is important.

Sakurabayashi published Arigatou Kongoumaru in March 2012. The easy-to-read little book builds on her reports for the Evening Fuji. Like wartime Japanese dog stories, the book promotes an heroic ideal, with Kongo and Myoken as the examples.

It’s an uncritical and sometimes inaccurate dramatization. In Sakurabayashi’s account, Kongo and Myoken find the elderly couple in Watari, but we know that’s not true. The RDTA’s after-action briefings indicate that RDTA team leader Tamagawa found the couple.

In Sakurabayashi’s account, Kongo’s death is an unavoidable tragedy, but is that really the case? Why did the navy deploy a sick dog to disaster zone? Did anyone adequately monitor the pup’s health?

In hindsight, the signs that Kongo was sick while on deployment seem unambiguous. RDTA team leader Michio Yamada later wrote that when he saw Kongo aboard the helicopter at Atsugi on March 12, the dog looked “terribly thin.”

Matsumoto reportedly noticed Kongo’s condition the next day, and Morita the day after that. Other accounts, including a comic in the semi-official SDF magazine Mamor, show Matsumoto being aware of Kongo’s ill health on that early flight to Tohoku.

Had anyone noticed his condition earlier, perhaps Kongo could have stayed home. But that seems unlikely. The 2011 quake was the worst national emergency since the World War II. The navy needed its rescue dogs. Moreover, a canine team requires two dogs to operate and there was no substitute to take Kongo’s place.

We can’t say for sure whether Kongo’s sudden death can be blamed on the deployment itself or if it was merely the final blow of a recurring illness.

We do know that Kongo worked tirelessly. While we can never be certain if the friendly and enthusiastic dog was mentally affected by his gruesome labor, his experiences there undeniably physically tough. Bleeding paws and legs, swimming in cold water, strong overpowering smells and the stress of travel all weighed heavily on the already sick dog.

Kongo wasn’t the only canine casualty. Eight-year old RDTA dog Randy, who was healthy prior to his deployment, fell sick on his return from Tohoku and passed away suddenly. Randy had been with Kongo and Myoken in Watari.

Mortality studies after the 9/11 attacks suggest that dogs were not at any statistically significant risk of death following deployment, with one 2006 study placing mortality in 9/11 rescue dogs at 29.9 percent, compared to 21.8 percent in the general population. But for a dog to die as young as Kongo did suggests that something was wrong.

There were no veterinarians with the team in Tohoku, nor does there seem to have been any on the base in Kure. Instead the team relied on civilian vets from off post. Just as a disaster relief team would monitor the health of its workers with trained medical personnel, so too should the SDF consider deploying medical support for its rescue dogs. The military should also consider adding a third dog to its teams so injured or sick animals can rest.

While SDF dog handlers often joke that the dogs are senior non-commissioned officers—more accurately, PO-2s—the truth is that the SDF officially lists its guard dogs as equipment, as evidenced by Kongo’s full name, Kongou-maru.

Maru (?) is a suffix for equipment.

This classification as equipment has some knock-on effects on care. SDF dogs stay on base for life, as described by Morita during an RDTA briefing in 2011.

Since we cannot simply put the aged dogs to sleep, we take proper care of them until they die. We have built fenced kennels for these dogs that also require special care. We asked the staff in charge of facilities management to assemble a fence using purchased materials. The dog trainers themselves then constructed the kennels.

We utilize our own manpower as much as possible for such construction efforts. When a dog dies, we always give them a proper burial and hold ceremonies in their memory.

SDF bases around the country hold annual memorial services for their dogs and enshrine on post as a sign of respect and gratitude, but the SDF could do better supporting dogs while they’re alive.

Unlike in other countries such as the U.S. or the U.K., where military working dogs get adopted out, the SDF’s guard dogs remain in government custody. It doesn’t help that there is almost zero civilian demand for re-homing animals, despite lower abandonment rates than in the U.K., for instance. Japan re-homes only 11 percent of animals in shelters—and euthanizes 82 percent.

That is not to suggest that the handlers view their canine comrades merely as equipment. No doubt they deeply care for their animals. But it seems inhumane to deny the dogs the chance to live out their later years in the comfort of an adopted home.

The SDF also needs to be aware of the dog’s health and not simply rely on the creature’s apparent enthusiasm as a gauge of its ability to work. It’s neither cheap nor easy to train a rescue dog. Pushing animals to fatal limits is a waste of resources.

For years, Japan’s schools and workplaces have emphasized the values of stoicism and prevailing in the face of adversity. Since 1987, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has kept tabs on “death from overwork,” or karoshi. The Japanese see conducting one’s duties to the point of harm as admirable. It’s this harmful ethic that Sakurabayashi promotes.

Perhaps some of the lessons we learn from Kongo’s death are equally applicable to the SDF as a whole. Attention to service members’ health and well-being is not the same as promoting weakness.

A French rescue dog at the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks. Wikipedia photo

Changing of the guard

The team that went to Tohoku has mostly disbanded. Morita retired on schedule, getting a new job in the bridal industry after always dreaming of doing something that would “make people happy.” He continues to work with volunteer rescue groups and wants to raise a rescue dog of his own.

The earthquake “changed my life,” he told Sakurabayashi. Indeed, he admits to being haunted after finding the bodies of children the same age as his own kids.

Meanwhile in Kure, Myoken has a new partner, Tamon, whose handler Hideki Mori represents the future for the base’s canine teams. Hopefully. Kongo and Myoken’s former handlers Matsumoto and Fujii both worry about possible funding cuts in the rescue-dog program.

The handlers’ fears aside, it’s worth noting that the navy has opened another dog training facility in Yokosuka—and the air force has built a simulated rubble field at Iruma. Both are clear signs that the military intends to preserve and even expand its canine search-and-rescue capabilities.

In any event, Kongo’s spirit lives on. Rescue-dog workshops at Kure begin with a visit to the dead pup’s memorial. If in the next disaster the SDF deploys more and better-trained dogs—and takes better care of them after their lifesaving work—maybe then we can believe beyond any doubt that Kongo did not die in vain.

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