YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — U.S. and Japanese forces will practice defending Japan this week amid growing security concerns in northeast Asia that have prompted both countries in recent weeks to call for strengthening their military alliance.

The annual bilateral Yama Sakura exercise, which kicks off Thursday in southwestern Japan, will bring together a combined 6,000 U.S. and Japanese troops for drills on a variety of combat scenarios.

Despite North Korea’s recent provocations, the exercise was not designed with a specific enemy in mind, military officials said.

“We’re preparing for an enemy with all kinds of capabilities,” said Maj. Randall Baucom, spokesman for U.S. Army Japan and I Corps Forward, the Army’s newest rapid-response contingency unit in Japan.

The U.S., Japan and South Korea declared a united front against North Korea in December, following a series of attacks carried out by the regime in 2010. The U.S. has been pushing for a trilateral military exercise since, but historical sensitivities between Japan and South Korea have hampered such efforts.

A command-post exercise, Yama Sakura will test the ability of U.S. and Japanese ground forces to coordinate communications, intelligence-sharing and troop movements in a computer-simulated environment at the Camp Kengun in southwestern Japan, headquarters of Japan’s Western Army .

Japan plans to concentrate more troops and military assets in southwestern Japan to hedge against North Korea and fortify its outlying islands, according to a comprehensive new defense strategy released in December. The National Defense Program Guidelines calls for re-shaping the Japan Self-Defense Force from a Cold War-era posture – geared for a land invasion by Russia in the North – to a more flexible force capable of quickly responding to a variety of threats, including a North Korean missile attack.

Yama Sakura is the first joint exercise since Japan announced the new guidelines.

Japan Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa emphasized the new defense strategy while touring Camp Kengun last week in preparation for Yama Sakua, telling Japanese troops that “training needs to be substantial.”

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