Patient partners: Japanese and Americans work to keep Pacific peaceful
Master Sgt. Charles Adams wears slippers. With his battle dress uniform. At work.
“Perks of the job,” Adams said, smiling, as he pulled off his heavy black combat boots and tucked his socked toes in a pair of brown house slippers.
It’s not that Adams likes to flaunt Air Force dress and appearance standards. Fact is, he has permission to wear slippers at work. After all, he works at Misawa Air Base, Japan, and when in the Land of the Rising Sun, you do as the locals do. Especially when you work side by side with them directing a flight line full of fighter aircraft.
Wearing slippers while working may have once seemed a bit uncomfortable for Adams, the chief of air traffic control operations at Misawa since 1999, but he realizes it’s the Japanese way.
“I’ve learned to have an open mind,” he said. “I appreciate what the Japanese have taught me — understanding.”
Partnership in peace
It’s about a block from the Misawa base operations complex to the control tower where Adams works, but in that short distance, the military culture of the base is evident. Signs written in English give way to Japanese signs with English subtitles. A tingly ping-ping of Oriental-style music floats in the air from loudspeakers on rooftops, and men in strangely styled gray and green uniforms bow to greet each other outside the buildings. Shoes line doorways.
In the space of that one block, you’ve walked from the heavily American presence of Misawa to the largely Japanese area and, at the same time, immersed yourself in a completely different culture.
“The Japanese are very polite,” said Lt. Col. Creig Rice, 35th Operations Support Squadron commander. A self-proclaimed Asian culture enthusiast, Rice said the Japanese way of doing things and the American way are vastly different.
“This is not an aggressive culture,” he said. “Where we tend to ‘take the bull by the horns,’ try to institute changes and make on-the-spot decisions, the Japanese are very methodical, very deliberate and very, very patient. There’s a definite learning curve for our people who work with the locals.”
The Japanese-American relationship is complex, as expected when western in-your-face commercialism meets eastern don’t-rock-the-boat sensitivity. At its core, however, the partnership between two former enemies is all about peace in the Pacific.
The Japanese constitution doesn’t allow for a standing military that would be used for offensive purposes. Instead, the military — established in 1954 and called the Japan Self Defense Force — is geared to defending the islands from attack. About 250,000 Japanese serve in the self defense force at army, navy and air force bases throughout the islands.
The constitution was crafted with U.S. input after World War II and was designed to keep the Japanese from developing an offensive capability that could threaten the Pacific region. The Cold War began almost before the ink was dry on the document, and American military planners realized any Soviet Union threat in the region would probably go through Japan. The United States needed a strong ally in the region. Former enemies became partners in peace.
Now, as long as the Japanese islands are safe, the U.S. military can focus attention on trouble spots like Southwest Asia and Korea.
“A strong Japan is a strong Pacific region,” said Col. Ed Madden, 35th Fighter Wing vice commander. “By helping the Japanese defend their homeland, we bring stability to a part of the world that’s vital to American interests.”
The partnership is integral to the Misawa mission. The base is home to Japan’s 3rd Air Wing, which defends northern Japan. There are 18 major defense force units at the base, and the pilots fly the Japanese-made F-2 and American-made F-4 jet fighters in the only joint air operations environment in Japan.
The Air Force mission here is clear. The wing — flying F-16s as the “Fightin’ Samurai” and “Panthers” — is one of two “wild weasel” missions in the Air Force. In wartime, the Samurai and Panthers go in first and destroy enemy air defense capabilities, clearing a path for bombers and other forces to follow.
The two fighter squadrons don’t have the luxury of simply sitting tight at Misawa and protecting the Pacific region. In recent years, the wing has deployed pilots and aircraft around the globe, including operations in Southwest Asia. A strong partnership with the self defense force gives the Air Force the flexibility to pull the F-16s away when needed, still confident the Japanese can keep an eye on the region while they’re gone.
If you walked into the Misawa base operations nerve center, your first impression might be that the only thing missing is a strip of tape down the center of the floor marking the dividing line between the Japanese and Air Force controllers.
On one side of the room, several Japanese controllers huddle over what appears to be a map of the airfield. On the other, Tech. Sgt. Donna Merritt and Tech. Sgt. Peter Hahn go over operating instructions.
“It’s an interesting relationship,” said Merritt, the base operations training manager. “We don’t intermingle as much as you’d think, but we have developed a pretty good working environment.”
Merritt has learned a vital secret to working in what she called a “very different” environment.
“Deep breaths,” she said.
The Japanese are polite people. In just about every aspect of their lives, they are calm, reserved and very measured in their responses. They will consider an action for what seems like interminable periods of time before reacting, very often reflecting deeply on who might or might not be offended or insulted.
But when things are hopping on the Misawa flight line, there’s not much time for quiet reflection or politeness.
“When we get moving around here, we need decisions, and quick,” Merritt said. “The Japanese don’t make decisions at the lowest level. They have to ask for guidance from higher-ups, and their decisions take time. We don’t have that kind of time.”
Tech. Sgt. Peter Hahn, the deputy airfield manager, said it’s like having two chains of command.
“If we need something done, we have our processes,” he said, “and they have theirs. Sometimes we have to be patient with them, and they have to be patient with us.”
When Japanese Staff Sgt. Kouji Fujita started his tour at Misawa in 1992, he didn’t speak English. Suddenly, he found himself in the middle of a room full of Americans in Air Force uniforms barking unintelligible noises at him, the radios and anyone who walked in.
“It took time to learn about the Americans,” Fujita said. “I was very interested in their language and their culture. I think that made it easy for them to show me.”
Realizing cultural curiosity could help build bridges, Air Force and Japanese officials began a series of overtures to connect the two cultures. Now some select Japanese airmen attend the Air Force Airman Leadership School on base, and a host of cultural exchange programs have cropped up in recent years.
The result? A kind of cross-pollination of cultures that seems to be making the workplace run smoother.
“We have learned to understand our Air Force partners,” said Chief Warrant Officer Yamamoto Chikao, the senior enlisted person in Japan’s Northern Air Defense Force, headquartered at Misawa. Since the program began, 18 Japanese airmen have been through the Air Force’s leadership school.
“Our people know how the Air Force operates,” he said. “We are able to work well in joint operations to guarantee we get the job done.”
The cross-pollination is also helping grow a new generation of friends.
“Air Force people are good guys,” Fujita said. “I have many very good friends who are Americans. I think that is because I try to learn and understand their culture, and they try to understand mine. We are very similar, I think.”
RELATED ARTICLE: Misawa anchors Japan’s defense
It was once a stud farm for the Imperial Japanese Cavalry, survived World War II bombing and is now the anchor for the defense of the Pacific.
Misawa Air Base is home not only to the F-16s of the Air Force’s 35th Fighter Wing, but also to Marine, Navy and Army units, as well as the headquarters for the Japan Self Defense Force’s Northern Air Defense Force. The base and its units are charged with protecting the Japanese homelands and keeping peace in the Pacific region.
More than 4,200 u.s. service people live and work at the base alongside about 3,200 Japanese defense forces. Air Force F-16s fly in combined operations with defense force F-2s and F-4s, as well as a host of other Japanese aircraft flying support roles.
“Misawa — and our relationship with our Japanese partners — is vital to the security of the region,” said Col. Ed Madden, 35th Fighter Wing vice commander. “We couldn’t do our mission without their presence, and they welcome our role in protecting their country.”
The Japan Self Defense Force presence is more than fighter aircraft. An aircraft control and warning wing monitors airspace for incursions, the 6th Air Defense Missile Group mans a Patriot battery protecting the base and E-2C Hawkeye from the airborne early warning group patrol the region. Additionally, the Misawa helicopter airlift squadron, flying the CH-47 airlift helicopter, airlifts people and equipment between Misawa and remote radar sites under the control of the Northern Air Defense Force in northern Japan. The self defense force hospital provides medical care for Japanese members and their families.
On the American side, associate units from the Navy fly P-3 Orion recon aircraft, the Misawa Cryptologic Operations Center is a joint service operation providing command, control and communications support to U.S. and allied forces in the area, and the 403rd Military Intelligence Detachment boasts the Army’s northernmost soldiers in Japan.
Tech. Sgt. Mark Kinkade
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