More than 2,000 U.S. soldiers and Japan Self-Defense Forces personnel will head north to Hokkaido later this month to conduct the Yama Sakura bilateral training exercise.

The annual drill is to take place Jan. 25-31 at Camp Higashi-Chitose on Japan’s northernmost island, headquarters of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s northern army. It’s among the Pacific’s largest command-post exercises

Soldiers from U.S. Army Japan, 9th Theater Support Command and Fort Lewis, Wash.-based I Corps will participate, said Staff Sgt. Neil Jones, a U.S. Army Japan spokesman. Members of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 124th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment also are coming to the Far East.

The Japanese side will feature the Japan Ground Staff Office, JGSDF northern army, Japan Air Self-Defense Force and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Jones said U.S. Marines had committed to Yama Sakura but were called upon to assist in the earthquake and tsunami-relief missions under way in South Asia.

“The Marines unfortunately had to pull out of the exercise,” he said. “However, the U.S. Army and the JGSDF look forward to moving ahead with Yama Sakura and expect it to be a successful and fruitful training exercise.”

The 35th Supply and Service Battalion from Sagami Depot left for Camp Higashi-Chitose on Jan. 3 to begin site setup, said Capt. Dan Reichard, the unit’s company commander. It must arrange all the support and communications to accommodate U.S. forces at the exercise.

“It takes us about three weeks to receive everyone and set up the service and life-support structure,” Reichard said. “Site setup is the most time-consuming part of the entire exercise.”

Through heavy coordination with Japanese officials, he said, the battalion assembles critical infrastructure such as billeting, dining, office space and transportation. Maintaining Internet access, phones, laundry, postal services and other morale boosters — including a makeshift gym, billiards and foosball tables — also are part of its responsibility.

“We bring it all — quite literally,” Reichard said.

Site and risk assessment is another of the supply and service team’s key functions. Reichard said the camp’s potential safety hazards must be gauged before Yama Sakura participants arrive.

“My Samurai protection council, soldiers within our battalion, will walk through all areas of the exercise to see what might be potential danger spots,” he said. “For instance, it’s very treacherous to walk on the ice up here. How are we going to reduce that? So we brought in salt and rubber crampons to help boots grip the ice. That’s just one aspect.”

Yama Sakura was designed to sharpen U.S.-Japanese cooperation in a bilateral setting, provide the JGSDF maximum exposure to U.S. techniques and rehearse the forces’ ability to defend Japan, Jones said.

Launched in 1982, Yama Sakura — the largest bilateral exercise in Japan — began as a simple board game. By 1993, it was transformed into a high-tech, command-and-control drill driven by computer simulations.

Computers draw up scenarios based on real-world conditions but with no specific threat in mind. In past years, exercises have included themes such as attacks on Japan, missile defense, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and noncombatant evacuations.

According to Jones, Yama Sakura normally rotates among the five regional armies in Japan. In 2004, it was held at Camp Asaka in western Tokyo, the main defense-force hub for the metropolitan area and 10 surrounding prefectures.

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