JAPAN GROUND SELF-DEFENSE FORCE CAMP ASAKA, Japan — Last summer’s earthquake in Niigata left thousands homeless and the soldiers with Japan’s Eastern Army working 24-hour days for three weeks.

During the crisis, U.S. Army Maj. Marvin Haynes was right beside them.

Haynes is a foreign area officer, a specialized Army job that requires years of language and cultural training to produce officers who can embed with foreign militaries and governments to provide a direct link to the U.S. Army.

The July earthquake happened in Haynes’ first weeks in a job that depended on his knowledge of a foreign language and a foreign military. It tested his ability to translate in English, to think in Japanese and to forge friendships in a workplace that was unfamiliar and chaotic.

“It couldn’t have been a better situation for me,” Haynes says now of being thrown into a real-life disaster. “I got to know people really well during that time.”

Settling in

Nine months into the job, most of the chaos has passed. But Haynes’ learning curve is still arching forward.

The 36-year-old artillery officer has had to get accustomed to working on a Japanese military base, where soldiers and officers routinely work 12-hour days inside offices that sometimes require slippers rather than military boots.

He’s learned to accept Japanese military traditions, where enlisted soldiers rank far, far below commissioned officers, where morning physical training includes about 10 minutes of musically coordinated exercises.

And he’s learned to expect the surprises that come from being one of only two Americans working at Camp Asaka, the Self-Defense Force base outside of Tokyo. It’s not unusual, for example, for a two-star general to stop by his office to say hello.

“That doesn’t happen in the U.S. Army,” the major said.

Haynes is the first foreign area officer to be posted, full time, with the Eastern Army, a force of 16,000 that protects Tokyo and surrounding prefectures on Honshu Island’s eastern side.

Maj. Gen. Tokujiro Chiba, the Eastern Army chief of staff and Camp Asaka’s base commander, said having a full-time liaison officer, Haynes’ official title, has improved his ability to coordinate with all U.S. military units in Japan.

“We can directly tell our requests rather than through telephone or e-mail and coordinate and negotiate face-to-face,” Chiba said during an interview this month. “This is the best thing.”

‘His door is always open’

The Army expects foreign area officers such as Haynes to be experts on a certain region of the world. Haynes’ specialty is Northeast Asia, mainly South Korea and Japan.

To become an FAO, candidates must score high on a language ability test, study a specific language for at least a year, and earn a master’s degree in a related field. It adds up to about three to four years of schooling, a switch from Haynes’ years as a company-grade officer who oversaw units in South Korea.

“I had a normal artillery career, until now,” said Haynes, a graduate of the United States Military Academy in 1994.

Now, Haynes’ major job is to be around when people need him. Japanese officers stop by his office to ask for help with translation, to update him on meeting other foreign dignitaries, and often to invite him to after-work parties. “His door is always open,” said Chiba, the Japanese general. “We can work with him in our perspective. It is great.”

Much of his job also includes coordinating Yama Sakura, the annual military exercise between U.S. and Japanese forces. The computer-generated exercise involves thousands of troops on both sides, a situation that cries for capable translators available at every turn.

To that end, the Self-Defense Forces this month began a series of English-language courses for Japanese soldiers who are likely to be the interpreters at the year-end exercise.

As part of their lessons, Haynes gave some briefings in English. Out of a class of 10 soldiers, only three had worked with the U.S. military previously. Some could keep up with Haynes’ briefing, a two-hour explanation of U.S. Army history and culture. Some, it was obvious, could not.

“The interpreters make or break the exercise,” Haynes said afterward. But he also said he understood very well their nerves and their struggles to understand and simultaneously translate. “I know, it’s not easy."

Keeping a balance

Haynes grew up around the world; his father was in the Army. But home, for him, is Wisconsin, and he visits often. Yet his family is as international as his career. His wife, sister and stepmother are all Korean. Haynes spent four years in South Korea, three with 2nd Infantry Division in Uijeongbu and another with U.S. 8th Army in Seoul. He knows enough Korean to have a basic conversation and a healthy understanding of Korean pop music.

One of the challenges of his job involves balancing Haynes’ responsibilities to the U.S. command while earning the trust of his Japanese counterparts.

Earlier this month, he learned that a high-ranking Russian army officer was coming to Asaka for a visit. He didn’t know the name or exact rank, and asking the Japanese officers might arouse suspicion that he was there to collect information. At the same time, he knew that his boss would want to know about the visit.

He decided to wait until the Russian came, then he would be able to report the visit with the officer’s complete name and title.

“It’s a strange position to be in,” he said. “Sometimes, you’re looking for credibility on both sides.”

A soldier at heart

The only other American at Asaka is U.S. Army Col. Mark Blair, a civil affairs officer who helps the Self-Defense Force write its regulations and doctrine. Until four years ago, Blair’s office was at Camp Zama, about 2½ hours away by car.

Much of the interaction between the U.S. Army and Japan’s Eastern Army had been at high levels, generals talking to generals, colonels talking with colonels. Haynes’ full-time presence at Asaka creates interaction at the operational level, Blair said, an improvement.

“I think it’s key,” he said last week. “We’re here for mutual defense, to support and help with any natural disaster that hits Tokyo, the Kanto region.”

At heart, Haynes is still an artillery soldier, affiliated with the 6th Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment with the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea. But when U.S. troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, Haynes was enrolled in Japanese classes at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.

That set him on a trajectory of four years in school, four years away from Iraq or Afghanistan. He’ll be a foreign area officer for the rest of his career, but he’s asked the Army to send him to Iraq in 2009, when his assignment at Asaka is due to end.

Haynes wants to work with a military transition team that trains Iraqi soldiers. “I’m more than hoping” for the assignment, he said, knowing that the foreign area officer corps would rather he take a job in South Korea or at the Pentagon.

“I’m hoping they’ll be glad to have someone who is willing to go,” he said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

Did you know?Here are a few traditions and facts about the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces:

You can’t judge a Japanese soldier’s rank by his or her age:It’s not uncommon to meet a second lieutenant in his or her early 40s. Careers for Japanese ground troops stretch much longer than the 20 years that many U.S. troops serve. In many cases, the ground troops will stay in the service for 30 years or longer. As such, it’s common for enlisted soldiers to serve a couple of decades and then move into the officer ranks.

Not all ranks translate: Japanese troops know full well how to treat a general with stars pinned on his lapel. But a command sergeant major — the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army? That’s a little harder to translate, according to U.S. Army Maj. Marvin Haynes, a liaison officer with Japan’s Eastern Army.

The Self-Defense Forces’ enlisted ranks stop at sergeant major, but that rank isn’t the same as an American E-9, Haynes said. The rank itself is closer to an E-8, and the work the Japanese sergeant majors do is really more akin to that of a U.S. Army sergeant first class.

It’s not uncommon, for example, to see a Japanese master sergeant sweeping floors.

So when a U.S. E-9 visits the Japanese forces, it takes a little patience when helping Japanese officers realize how much respect U.S. senior enlisted soldiers receive, Haynes said.

That system, for the Japanese, is changing. The ground forces in the Eastern and Northern armies are creating command sergeant major billets next month, a rank with more responsibility and more resembling a U.S. sergeant major, according to Haynes. It’s a move that will greatly change the defense forces, said Maj. Gen. Tokujiro Chiba, the chief of staff for Eastern Army and the base commander at Camp Asaka.

And not all rules about ranks translate: While at work, the members of Japan’s ground forces adhere strictly to the hierarchy, order and ceremony, saluting and bowing on cue. But after work, the camaraderie looks much different than the socializing allowed among U.S. servicemembers.

In the JGSDF, members of all ranks can socialize after work. That includes drinking, eating and even dating, even between officers and enlisted soldiers. Explaining the more stringent rules for the U.S. military, that ban socializing or dating among different ranks, can bring surprised looks, Haynes said.

About the Eastern ArmyThe Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces are divided into five armies: Northern Army on Hokkaido; the Northeastern Army in the upper part of Honshu; the Eastern Army on the Kanto Plain; the Middle Army in the lower part of Honshu and Shikoku; and the Western Army on Kyushu.

The Eastern Army has 16,000 ground troops that provide defense for Tokyo, Japan’s population and economic center. It protects 54 million Japanese residents centered in Tokyo and northward to the East Sea, an area that generates 40 percent of the country’s gross national product.

It was the Eastern Army that helped with relief efforts for thousands left homeless in Niigata prefecture last summer after an earthquake of magnitude 6.6. The Eastern Army also sent 1,200 soldiers to Iraq from January to August in 2006.

— Stars and Stripes

Becoming an FAOTo become a Foreign Area Officer, Army officers must take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, a test that measures skills in understanding and deconstructing a fictional language.

People who score high can apply to be an FAO. People who score highest are generally directed toward the four most difficult languages: Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Arabic.

The FAO program trains officers to be experts on one of nine regions: Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East, Europe, Northeast Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Eurasia, Sub-Saharan Africa and China.

Candidates first go to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. The amount of training depends on the language. Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and Arabic are considered Category IV languages and require 18 months of classes.

Next, candidates do two things: in-country training at a local college and graduate training at a U.S. university.

U.S. Army Maj. Marvin Haynes first took courses at Kichijoji Language School in Tokyo and then earned a graduate degree in Asian studies at the University of Hawaii.

After about four years, FAOs gets their first assignment. Haynes was assigned as a liaison officer with the Eastern Army of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces. Other FAO jobs include assignments as a foreign attaché, exchange officer, police or political military officer, security assistance officer or a military defense assistant.

— Teri Weaver

Public info center at AsakaThe Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Public Information Center, located in Camp Asaka, gives visitors firsthand experience with JGSDF equipment and an opportunity to learn about its history.

On display are an AH-1S attack helicopter and Type-90 tank. Visitors can try on battle dress uniforms that come in all sizes and lift real-weight backpacks that JGSDF personnel carry. And visitors can try firing and flight simulators and look at an underground command post.

A gift shop sells such JGSDF souvenirs as cookies adorned with JGSDF mascots, T-shirts, hats and cell phone charms.

Address: Oizumigakuen-cho, Nerima-ku, Tokyo 178-8501Tel: 03-3924-4176Admission: FreeHours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and the fourth Tuesday of each month. If Monday or the fourth Tuesday is a national holiday, closed the following day.Directions: About a 15-minute walk from Wako-shi station on Tobu Tojo line or Yurakucho subway line. Or about a three-minute drive from Wako exit on Tokyo Gaikan Expressway. Parking is free.

For more information, click here

— Hana Kusumoto

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