US Army and JGSDF: Brothers in arms

Photo by Patrick Ciccarone
Photo by Patrick Ciccarone

US Army and JGSDF: Brothers in arms

by Patrick Ciccarone
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Japan District

U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert, a project Engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Japan Engineer District (JED), and Japanese Ground Self Defense Force (JGSDF) 1st LT. Shinji Kohara, a platoon leader with the 1st Engineer Battalion in Camp Asaka, are two very different individuals who share one common love: Engineering.

Shinji is thoughtful and reserved with a lithe form that pairs well with a man of that temperament, Gilbert is outgoing and filled with bombast, a bundle of energy bottled within the stature that quickly calls to mind the Man of Steel.

The pair couldn’t be any different, but their contrasts complement each other perfectly. They are a system in balance.

“I think between us, I am much more unassuming,” mused Kohara. “Andrew, in turn, is much more positive and outgoing.”

“Like yin and yang,” Andrew chimed in.

Gilbert and Kohara were brought together by the Co-Op program, a bilateral exchange opportunity created by U.S. Army Japan and JGSDF, that pairs junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) with their foreign counterpart to enhance English and Japanese language comprehension skills, learn about each other’s cultures, familiarize themselves with their respective branches’ doctrines and techniques, all with the goal of strengthening the strategic alliance between America and Japan.

“The Co-Op program has allowed me to learn English, culture, and Engineering practices from an American perspective,” explained Kohara. “Although I have only been partnered with Andrew for a short time, it has been a great experience.”

Held each quarter since 1995, the JGSDF has sent officers, ranging from 2nd lieutenants to captains, to live and work at Camp Zama for a period of 10-weeks during which they engage in on-the-job training, serve as interpreters, and in positions as instructors. Opportunities for spending time with their partner off-duty also allow for a more meaningful strengthening of bilateral ties.

Kohara, a native of the Tachikawa area of Japan, a small suburban town located on the outskirts of Tokyo, didn’t always imagine himself in a camouflage uniform, complete with 30 subordinates under his purview.

“Originally, I wanted to become a chef,” Shinji said, laughing. “I love to cook, and my father was a professional chef, so it seemed like the natural progression for me growing up.”

Greater than his feeling of duty to his father and the culinary arts, however, was Shinji’s desire to help people and become an asset to his country. This need spurred him to join the JGSDF after college, where he traded in his paring knife for a protractor and stick of dynamite.

“Ever since I was young, I’ve always wondered how I could help the people around me,” Shinji explained. “Being a chef was an aspiration but being a JGSDF member or emergency responder was something that called to me.”

Following his commission into the JGSDF, Kohara was stationed in Camp Asaka as the platoon leader for the 3rd company in Japan’s Eastern Army, located near Saitama, just north of Tokyo – a mere hour’s distance from his home in Tachikawa.

After serving for approximately three years, Shinji was nominated by his supervisor to enroll in the Co-Op program held at Camp Zama, where he would put his English skills to the test, and learn about Engineering from the District’s own 1st LT.

“I’ve had Shinji with me for almost two months, and it’s been a really great opportunity to spend time with him, learn about Japanese culture, and teach him about Army doctrine,” said Gilbert. “it’s also been a unique chance to teach him about Engineering from our (JED) perspective and compare how the JGSDF and Corps of Engineers approach situations.”

Gilbert explained that because of Japan’s historical and constitutional approach of being a more “defensive” oriented nation, their approach to Engineering, both in a hypothetical war and in current peacetime practices, the way they approached construction and destruction was fundamentally different.

“Whereas the U.S. Army and Corps [of Engineers] would masquerade their defense as an offense, Japan and the [Ground Self Defense Force] apply a much more defensive way to building their structures.” Gilbert offered.

But while the Co-Op program’s purpose is to teach American and Japanese servicemembers about each other’s jobs, it doesn’t mean that fun can’t be had – as Andrew and Shinji both attested to.

Andrew, an avid gym-goer, says that the most effective way for him to bond with people is through physical fitness, a tenant of both the U.S. Army, and a priority for JED’s commander.

“Shinji and I have been to the gym quite a few times already – he’s in great shape and has certainly given me a run for my money in some lifts,” Andrew mused, smiling.

Lt. Kohara on the other hand, has offered to show Andrew a look at his culinary skills, by inviting him over to dinner at his house, to meet his friends and family members, showing the young American solider a genuine look at ‘omotenashi’ or the famous hospitality of Japan.

“He [Andrew] is always welcome in my home,” said Shinji. “He has taught me a lot during my time with him, and I am very glad to have met him.”

While Shinji’s stay at Camp Zama and his enrollment in the Co-Op program and integration with JED has ended, he’ll bring back with him some of the lessons learned during his bilateral experience.

“It has been enlightening to see how the Corps of Engineers and U.S. Army operate,” said Shinji. “I hope I can apply some of their teachings to my own style of command.”

As Shinji makes his way back to Camp Asaka, Lt. Gilbert will prepare himself for his own exchange during the beginning of winter, where he will once again accompany Lt. Kohara for a week’s worth of cooperative learning.

“I’m a bit nervous, but I’m planning to bring lots of positive energy with me and hoping to show them [the JGSDF] some of the capabilities that JED has to offer,” said Andrew. “I’ll be relying on Shinji to help me integrate over there, so it’ll be great to have a familiar face.”

Photo Caption:
Japanese Ground Self Defense Force (JGSDF) member 1st Lt. Shinji Kohara, left, poses with U.S. Army Lt. Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert, right, in front of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Japan Engineer District (USACE JED) Headquarters building on Camp Zama, Japan. Gilbert and Kohara, a Project Engineer, and platoon leader with the 1st Engineering Battalion, respectively, were partnered together through the Co-Op program, which unites JGSDF members with U.S. Army personnel to further cultural understanding while providing each other with on-the-job training opportunities for approximately 2-3 months.

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