2 Air Forces, 1 mission

U.S. Fifth Air Force’s Deputy Chief Protocol Officer, Capt. December Garcia (center left) is surrounded by her three Japanese counterparts (from left) Capt. Chihiro Sasaki, Tech Sgt. Naoko Yoneto and Capt.Tomoko Narita from Air Defense Command of Japan Air Self-Defense Force.
U.S. Fifth Air Force’s Deputy Chief Protocol Officer, Capt. December Garcia (center left) is surrounded by her three Japanese counterparts (from left) Capt. Chihiro Sasaki, Tech Sgt. Naoko Yoneto and Capt.Tomoko Narita from Air Defense Command of Japan Air Self-Defense Force.

2 Air Forces, 1 mission

by: Takahiro Takiguchi | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: June 18, 2013

Juggling different rules, customs and cultures for the best diplomatic outcome is both challenging and rewarding for any protocol officer. But for three Japan Air Self-Defense Force staff at Yokota Air Base, Japan, it is a way of life.

Like their U.S. Air Force counterparts, Capt. Chihiro Sasaki, Tech Sgt. Naoko Yoneto and civilian Satoko Odani help coordinate official visits, events and exchanges, mostly between the two air forces. What sets them apart, however, is that they do so in the American environment to which they liaise – largely un-buffered by the cultural comforts of more familiar environs off base.

“It is very important and a great opportunity to work on Yokota and experience various cultural exchanges while successfully executing our mission together,” Sasaki said.

Approximately 800 JASDF personnel work at the American air base under a U.S.-Japan realignment that relocated Japan’s Air Defense Command from JASDF Fuchu Base to Yokota in March 2012. Some even live there. (Special dormitories were built to house about 200 single Japanese personnel in 2011, but a JASDF spokesperson declined to say how many currently reside there.) These days, Japanese airmen are regularly seen on Yokota interacting with their U.S. counterparts and sharing American-style amenities.

Sometimes those amenities can take some getting used to.

“For instance, the lower half of the toilet doors in both the O-Club and E-Club are open. Our legs and underwear can be seen from outside!” Sasaki admits laughingly. “Also, the kitchen shelves are too high; I have to step on a stool to reach anything. Situations like these remind me that I am on American facility.”

All agree, however, that the perks and personnel far outweigh such inconveniences.

“There is a food court and steakhouse, and we enjoy American-style food in the workplace,” said Odani. “And I like the way Americans greet you with their eyes or say ‘konnichiwa’ (good afternoon) in Japanese.”

For Yoneto, it’s the communal spirit that stands out.

“U.S. military families on base support each other as a community, like it is their hometown,” she said. “If a service member goes on a long deployment, neighbors and the whole community support the family members left behind. I like the warm and supportive atmosphere.” 

Of the many U.S. bases throughout the country that Japan Self-Defense Forces members may work, Yokota, Camp Zama and Yokosuka Naval Base are the only three that house a JSDF headquarters or unit, according to the Japan Ministry of Defense. At Yokota, the three protocol officers work in the newly built ADC headquarters adjacent to U.S. Fifth Air Force headquarters. Cross-cultural exchanges give them ample opportunity to exercise their well-honed English-language skills. 

Of the three on her team, Sasaki is the only one who has not studied abroad. But she studied English under U.S. military personnel in the National Defense Academy of Japan, and possesses a tenacity and drive that have earned her captain’s rank and assignments on several U.S. military bases, such as in Misawa and Kuwait. That’s not to say there aren’t linguistic challenges. But she meets them head on.

“Although I am a protocol officer, sometimes I have trouble keeping up with my American counterparts in complicated discussions. But as the schedules and itineraries of U.S. and Japanese commanding officers affect a lot of people, I always discuss things thoroughly with my American counterparts to ensure everything is understood,” Sasaki said. Talking face-to-face instead of by phone or email is another essential tool. “By talking face-to-face with Americans we can avoid misunderstandings. Luckily, our headquarters are next to each other.”

The close proximity has also lead to some close cross-cultural bonds – especially between the three Japanese protocol officers and Capt. December “Dee” Garcia, who served as Fifth Air Force’s deputy manpower and personnel director until May. Her counterparts said they found her to be very efficient, motivated and warm-hearted. Garcia in turn expressed admiration for them.

“They are strong-willed, very hard-working and very funny,” Garcia said recently before shipping off to her next duty station. “I will miss them so much. They were very kind and welcoming. Working with them was always a collaborative effort, exploring each other’s thought processes and sharing our humorous lives.”

In addition to professional collaborations, there were also personal ones – particularly in the realm of fashion.

“Dee has a cool hairstyle,” Sasaki said. “One of our female enlisted personnel once asked her ‘what should I ask the hairdresser to get my hair styled like yours.’ Dee said, ‘just ask for the A-line cut.’” After that, the style became fashionable among female JASDF personnel. I had the same haircut. But we call it the D-cut, after Dee.”

The bond between the women grew so strong, they said, that it was recently demonstrated at a farewell event held for Garcia before her departure. 

“During her farewell speech, Dee turned toward us in tears and said ‘I can’t help weeping because I have to leave you,” Sasaki recalled. “Her words moved us to tears. It has been a great pleasure working here with Americans. Our tours of duty are limited to a couple of years, and I know I will be very sad to say goodbye to my American friends.”

In addition working on the same base, Garcia said there was one other important ingredient that made spanning the cultural divide a cinch – they took the time to get to know each other.  

“Know the person behind the uniform just as you would know your fellow American co-workers,” she said.  “Getting to know my JSDF counterparts made a huge difference, positively impacting our working relationship.”

The reward is not just felt on a personal level, Sasaki said. It goes to the core of the Japan-U.S. military partnership and is one of the key reasons she works with Americans on Yokota Air Base: “It really promotes friendship and close ties between the two air forces.”