YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Martial arts experts charged with revamping the Japan Self-Defense Force hand-to-hand combat program are eager to incorporate lessons learned by U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In recent years, the U.S. Army has revised its own hand-to-hand combat training based on interviews with hundreds of soldiers involved in close-quarters combat in both theaters.

Experts conducting a review of the Japanese forces’ martial arts program have been analyzing the latest techniques used by U.S. troops as part of a multi-year research effort, according to officials at the JSDF Physical Training school.

The current Japanese system has its roots in the traditional martial arts of judo, karate, kendo, aikido and ju-kendo. The fighting systems were developed by ancient samurai warriors, but few modern Japanese troops have used their skills on the battlefield since the Self-Defense Force seldom sends personnel to combat zones.

However, researchers helping to revise the JSDF martial arts system have been studying U.S. Army and Marine Corps martial arts and talking to U.S. military martial arts experts, according to Maj. Hideki Koishi, a researcher at the physical training school.

During a recent training session inside a massive gymnasium at Camp Asaka, near Tokyo, 30 Japanese soldiers fixed bayonets and stood face to face. At the sound of a buzzer, the troops stomped the ground in unison and let out blood-curdling screams as they thrust their bayonets toward each other — an exercise repeated hundreds of times until the soldiers’ voices grew hoarse and rivers of sweat ran down their faces.

It’s the sort of training that U.S. soldiers don’t do much of these days. During close-quarters combat drills, American troops learn to thump enemies in the chest with the muzzles of their rifles, creating space in case they need to shoot to protect themselves. The technique was developed after experts analyzed the information provided by the troops involved in fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers are more likely to find themselves engaged in crowd control than fighting with bayonets.

Japanese soldiers do martial arts training for one or two hours each week, Koishi said, but they lack combat experience.

A group of U.S. Army combatives instructors are scheduled to train alongside the Japanese troops at Camp Asaka later this year.

“I hope the [American] soldiers have real-world experience,” Koishi said, adding that he is eager to get the U.S. troops’ opinion on Japanese martial arts training.

U.S. soldiers are taught to react to the sort of situations they might face during a combat patrol, according to Camp Zama-based Army Combatives instructor Leonardo Munoz. For example, soldiers train to detain violent role players inside ordinary buildings such as vacant on-base housing, or they are taught to remove suspects from vehicles without harming them.

The U.S. troops were invited to train at the JSDF school by its commandant, Maj. Gen. Makato Hatanaka, who was impressed by a U.S. Army Combatives class that he observed in October, Munoz said.

Last month, Japanese troops learned U.S. Army Combatives at Camp Zama, he said.

author picture
Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now