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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — For 10 days they ate miso soup and rice with meals, woke at the 6:30 a.m. bell and saw up close how another country’s military gets the job done.

Four noncommissioned officers here had the rare opportunity to experience life on a Japanese military base.

The U.S. Air Force-Japan Air Self-Defense Forces NCO exchange program has been around for several years, with the 18th Fighter Wing, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, and 374th Airlift Wing, Yokota Air Base, Japan, holding similar bilateral exchanges.

But military leaders within U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force are renewing the program’s emphasis and want to expand it, said Misawa’s 35th Fighter Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Missel.

“Initially there are some barriers to break through,” Missel said. “As we use a program like this to break through those barriers, the bonds of trust and the communication ability are certainly enhanced. It’s a great program to mutually assure our security in the region.”

Misawa in August hosted 10 JASDF airmen from various bases. JASDF returned the favor by inviting four Misawa NCOs to live and work at Hyakuri Air Base, about 50 miles northeast of Tokyo. On Nov. 30, Master Sgt. Michael Ison, Staff Sgt. Sean Petty, Tech. Sgt. Kevin Moneace and Staff Sgt. Erwin Sarinas hopped a ride to Hyakuri on a JASDF C-1 aircraft. Hyakuri maintains the air defense of Japan’s largest city.

Each American was matched with a sponsor from a similar career field: a JASDF noncommissioned officer whom they shadowed on the job.

Through immersion on the base, they learned things about their Japanese counterparts not evident on a bus tour or briefing.

“Sometimes they work 24-hour shifts, which I did not realize,” said Ison, a 35th Operations Support Squadron air traffic control liaison at Misawa who worked air traffic control and airfield operations at Hyakuri. Also, everyone on base pulls security duty, not just the military police, observed Petty, an aircraft structural maintenance craftsman with 35th Maintenance Squadron.

Moneace, a 35th Logistics Readiness Squadron petroleum distribution supervisor, found that unlike in the U.S. Air Force — where everyone is assigned to a specific section in their unit with different duties — “in their air force everyone shares the load across the board. That’s a long-lost trait we once had in the Air Force.”

The working environment, the Misawa NCOs said, was more structured than their own.

“If something goes wrong,” Moneace said, “it kind of throws everything off. We’re more apt to adapt; that’s our strong point.”

Petty said he was impressed with the Japanese military’s management style and camaraderie.

“When you walked in the door, the whole flight greets you,” he said.

Petty, who trained with an air propulsion and ground flight — the airmen who launch and recover aircraft — said most flight members conversed by telephone or in person, not by e-mail.

“That’s something that I’d like to see come back to our Air Force,” he said.

Structure pervaded all facets of base life, from the 6:30 a.m. wake-up call — a get-ready-to- go-to-work bell — that sounded in every barracks room to the pre-selected entree at the mess hall.

“They have rice and miso soup with every meal,” Ison said. “During lunch, there’s no socializing; you eat and you leave because of the number of people who process through the line.”

The NCOs also partook in Japanese traditions. During the morning ceremony, for instance, the Japanese stood in formation outdoors and sang a good-luck song to anyone leaving the base for a competition. They also pounded mochi, climbed mountains and visited cultural sites in Ibaraki Prefecture.

“By far it was one of my best experiences in the Air Force,” Ison said. “I believe we all came away with lifelong friends.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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