Yokota Airmen spend a week at JASDF base

A group of five Yokota Airmen pose for a photo in traditional Japanese garb in Yamaguchi, Japan, February 14, 2019. They spent a week working with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force outof Hofu-kita, Yamaguchi, a pilot training base for the JASDF. (Courtesy Photo)
A group of five Yokota Airmen pose for a photo in traditional Japanese garb in Yamaguchi, Japan, February 14, 2019. They spent a week working with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force outof Hofu-kita, Yamaguchi, a pilot training base for the JASDF. (Courtesy Photo)

Yokota Airmen spend a week at JASDF base

by Staff Sgt. Kyle Johnson
374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Keep an open mind they said. Flexibility is the key to airpower, it’ll be fun they said.

Never has this been more true to Staff Sgt. Rydell Hutchins, 374th Civil Engineer Squadron electrical systems NCO in charge, than when he left his towel, clothes, and his cultural barriers in the locker room before stepping out into the public bath with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.

Every year, Yokota Air Base hosts a group of JASDF airmen across a variety of career fields and pairs them with volunteers of the same career field. They spend a week shadowing their sponsor on and off the clock.

Six months later, Yokota sends its’ own group of Airmen to be hosted by a JASDF base, where they work and live with their JASDF counterparts.

No, they don’t get an interpreter.

The program provides a chance for the two agencies to compare professional practices and methodology. But just as importantly, it provides an exchange of culture that has the very real potential to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone involved.

Hutchins was part of a group of five such Airmen who volunteered for the program. Every single one had different expectations and different reasons for volunteering.

“This is the first bilateral program at Hofu-Kita Airbase, so we get to be the first ones in,” said Airman 1st Class Caleb Briscoe, 374th Operational Support Squadron airfield management apprentice. “I don’t have any expectations, but I want to get everything I can out of this opportunity.”

After weeks of briefings and a few slideshows, the five volunteers boarded a JASDF C-1 military transport aircraft, full of differing levels of excitement and nervousness.

“When we came on base, they had a formation with all these people clapping and holding banners,” said Senior Airman Philip Nepomuceno, 374th Medical Group medical technician. “It felt like a VIP treatment.”

Hofu-Kita Airbase is in the western side of Yamaguchi prefecture with mountains to the north and Japan’s Inland Sea to the south. The base provides training opportunities to JASDF pilots.

The Yokota team would spend a week there, living in JASDF dorms and working in JASDF shops. The Japanese standards for living space are fundamentally different than that of American expectations, this is equally true for dormitory life.

They live in groups of four,” said Staff Sgt. Bobbie Price, 374th Maintenance Squadron repair and reclamation craftsman. “My sponsor had been there and lived in the same room for six years. There’s just a great togetherness about how they operate. It feels like a technical school environment.”

“There was no privacy,” said Nepomuceno. “It’s basic training-style until you’re a staff sergeant.”

While each dorm has a communal toilet and bathroom, – they’re separate in Japan – there’s still a public bath, or sento, available for those who’d like to enjoy it.

Public bathing is a cultural standard in Japan and often one of the most shocking of Japan’s many unique activities. Not all of the visiting airlifters took part in the sento, but for those with tattoos it was likely their only chance to try it as most sentos and hot springs do not allow tattoo-clad patrons.

“Everyone’s just normal with it. It’s not a big deal,” Hutchins said. “Before you know it, it feels normal to you too. I began looking forward to it every night.”

Their Japanese hosts kept them busy while they were visiting. Each day was nearly 12 hours long and packed to the minute with tours, activities and food.

“They took us out and showed us the town, it was awesome,” Briscoe said. “We went to a soccer game and I got to be part of a cheering squad, which was super cool. I had a jersey, there were guys with drums, guys with megaphones and cheers for every player.”

Throughout the week they were barraged with food, whether at the dining facility or out in town, the locals tried to put as much Japan in these American’s bellies as possible.

From seafood okonomiyaki, a pancake-type meat pie, to ramen, to red bean and custard desserts, every day had a new flavor.

The trip wasn’t all baths and food though. The Airmen spent a lot of their time observing and assisting their own career fields within JASDF operations. An interesting challenge when communication largely consists of hand motions, broken English and even more broken Japanese.

“We each had two sponsors,” Briscoe said. “Mine took me through their jobs throughout the week. Outside of their jobs we got to learn about the whole base.”

Nepomuceno said he volunteered because he was interested to see the differences in clinical methodology between the two countries’ militaries.

“That clinic is meant for pilots on sick call or people having physicals,” Nepomuceno said. “So it isn’t open for as long as we’re used to, but when they are open, there’s a barrage of patients.”

Price, who volunteered with the specific intention of stealing as much Japanese efficiency as possible for his coworker’s sake, took notes of the Japanese maintenance practices and wrote up a memo of different parts he believed the 374th Airlift Wing could adopt.

“They’re highly organized, and they have a system that works so well, it blew my mind,” Price said. “I’m still talking to the guys I met down there. I’m pretty happy because I think they’re going to be lifelong friends.”

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