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Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Austin, a Navy reservist from Seattle, watches Petty Officer 3rd Class Yuzuru Yoshimura of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force jot down new words he learned from Austin during a recent English class at the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Okinawa Base on White Beach.
Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Austin, a Navy reservist from Seattle, watches Petty Officer 3rd Class Yuzuru Yoshimura of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force jot down new words he learned from Austin during a recent English class at the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Okinawa Base on White Beach. (Chiyomi Sumida / S&S)

WHITE BEACH, Okinawa — As cultural exchanges and learning experiences go, the program at White Beach every other Wednesday couldn’t be more low-key, low-tech or simple.

That may be what has helped make it such a long-running success — that plus the relatively rare opportunity the program affords participants to get to know colleagues doing the same work, but for another country.

Every other week, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force members get together to study English with U.S. Navy volunteers visiting from the base next door. A class started quietly one recent Wednesday afternoon, in an office with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.

“There are no fixed textbooks for the class, and whoever can make it for the day comes to teach or learn,” said Robyn Tengan, community relations specialist for the U.S. Navy’s Commander Fleet Activities, Okinawa. That free arrangement is the key to the 7-year-old volunteer program’s success, she said.

Lt. j.g. Yuujirou Yoshida, class coordinator for the MSDF side, said that during a typical year, about 100 MSDF members stationed at White Beach take part in the program.

At a corner of a long table, Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Austin, a naval reservist from Seattle, listened intently as MSDF Petty Officer 3rd Class Yuzuru Yoshimura read sentences from a sheet of paper he brought with him.

Across from them sat Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Barry, a naval reservist from San Antonio and MSDF Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryuichi Sakuraba.

“I’ve been coming to this class for the past six months,” Yoshimura said. “It is so much fun learning English from American Navy servicemembers.

“I enjoy the interaction with them, although I still cannot say everything I want to say in English.”

Barry, on Okinawa for a six-month deployment, said the Japanese sailors “show interest in American culture.”

Joining the teaching program is a good way to meet people, said Austin, on Okinawa since January.

“It’s a way of getting closer with the people here,” Austin said. “We are from different cultures, but there are many things we have in common, such as sports.”

Sakuraba, to return to sea duty after his Okinawa tour, said he considers English a must-have skill.

“On my last duty at sea, I had many opportunities to visit the United States and Arabian countries,” he said. “Each time, I really felt the need to speak English.

“Had I been able to communicate better with people I encountered in the countries I visited, my tour would have been far more enriching and memorable.”

MSDF Petty Officer 3rd Class Yuusuke Uchida agreed.

“I had been sent to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni for training,” he said. “I missed a great chance to communicate with U.S. servicemembers there because of my lack in ability to speak English. While I am here, I want to come to this class as much as I can.”

Yoshida said although learning the language was not easy, getting to meet with U.S. sailors “on a person-to-person basis makes us feel our close ties as navy sailors of the countries we serve.”

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