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Friends and classmates, from left, Lt. Col. Hiroshi Senba, Lt. Col. Stuart Lum and Lt. Col. Norifumi Kase share a special bond after graduating from the Japan Air Self-Defense Forces air and command staff college more than six years ago. Senba and Kase are assigned to the 3rd Wing at Misawa, while Lum falls under the 35th Fighter Wing as the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander.
Friends and classmates, from left, Lt. Col. Hiroshi Senba, Lt. Col. Stuart Lum and Lt. Col. Norifumi Kase share a special bond after graduating from the Japan Air Self-Defense Forces air and command staff college more than six years ago. Senba and Kase are assigned to the 3rd Wing at Misawa, while Lum falls under the 35th Fighter Wing as the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — No fence or physical boundary separates the Japanese and Americans here. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s 3rd Air Wing and the 35th Fighter Wing live and work on the same base.

But it’s not always easy crossing the language and cultural divide — unless you happen to be former classmates.

Lt. Col. Stuart Lum, 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander, is one of a handful of Air Force officers to graduate from the JASDF’s air command and staff college at Meguro Air Station near Tokyo.

Lum was the first U.S. Air Force officer to complete the course when he graduated in 2000. He asked Pacific Air Forces to send him to the JADSDF training in lieu of normal stateside training based on his Japanese language skills and three years as an exchange officer in Japan. PACAF agreed, and has since sent at least three more officers to the school, Lum said.

More important than trailblazing, Lum believes, are the dividends the experience continues to pay.

Lum went to school with the same 50 classmates five days a week for a year and lived in the local community.

“You form lasting friendships,” he said.

By coincidence, two of Lum’s classmates are also assigned to Misawa: Lt. Col. Norifumi Kase, 1st Operation Squadron commander with the Northern Air Civil Engineering Group, and Lt. Col. Hiroshi Senba, the 3rd Air Wing’s Flight Group deputy commander.

Crossing paths six years later has been a pleasant surprise for the old friends and a boon for their respective jobs, they said. If Lum needs help from his JASDF counterparts — or vice versa — they know whom to call.

Their friendship has opened the door to several U.S.-Japanese exchanges on base. Lum recently took students from the Airman Leadership School to Kase’s squadron for a tour of the unit’s heavy equipment.

“Even though we’re at the same base, opportunities for exchange are not all that easily done,” Kase said. The classmate connection, he added, has enriched the U.S.-Japan military relationship, albeit on a small scale.

The Air Force, Kase explained, doesn’t seem “so overwhelming.” When he thinks of the Air Force, Kase thinks of his classmate.

“It’s just not an entity,” he said.

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