Fish Out of Water: A Soldier’s Week with the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force

Gears grind with a metallic gnashing, as a plume of black smoke belches out the exhaust – the mechanical, skeleton-like arm slowly extending toward a mound of dirt as the piston pulls the bucket into the fresh earth. The Engineer, clad in the familiar U.S. Army gray, green, and tan, deftly maneuvers the excavator like a seasoned professional, every move deliberate, as he repositions the bucket for another dive.

Recently, Gilbert had the opportunity to spend a week with the JGSDF at the 3rd company’s Eastern Army, Camp Asaka, located in the Nerima area of Tokyo, a quiet suburb just north of the mega-metropolis.

He was extended a special invite from the Bilateral Co-Op Program’s lead, Junko Akabane, and preparations were made for his 5-day-immersion into the world of the JGSDF.

“Akabane-san was an immense help in sorting out all of the logistical requirements, and my own chain-of-command is always so supportive of what I choose to do,” said Gilbert. “Everything was approved in a heartbeat, and I jumped right over as soon as I could.”

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This was not Gilbert’s first foray into liaising with the JGSDF, however – he is a frequent participant of U.S. Army Japan’s (USARJ) Bilateral Co-Op Program, which pairs junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) with their foreign counterpart to enhance English and Japanese language comprehension skills, learn about each other’s cultures, familiarize themselves with their respective branches’ doctrines and techniques, all with the goal of strengthening the strategic alliance between America and Japan.

Held each quarter since 1995, the JGSDF has sent officers, ranging from 2nd lieutenants to captains, to live and work at Camp Zama for a period of 10-weeks during which they engage in on-the-job training, serve as interpreters, and in positions as instructors. Opportunities for spending time with their partner off-duty also allow for a more meaningful strengthening of bilateral ties.

For the Houston, Texas native, Gilbert was a fish-out-of-water – having not been to a JGSDF camp in this capacity, and without any sort of English-based assistance meant that ahead of him was a fast and frenetic week packed with activities he could have never anticipated. It was a crash course in Japanese culture, with all the military bearing and professionalism you would expect from the JGSDF, but not without some laughs along the way.

“The 3rd Company had me extremely busy during my week with them and having the opportunity to work with the JGSDF is always a pleasure,” Gilbert said. “We did everything from taiko drumming, to combat Kempo, and even got to experience my first handling of a bulldozer – being an engineer, that’s like a dream come true!”

Gilbert’s visit this time, however, was a special chance for an American Soldier to reverse roles and visit a JGSDF camp. He wouldn’t be alone though – guiding him would be a familiar face, his friend, and former Co-Op Program partner, 1st LT. Shinji Kohara, a platoon leader with the 1st Engineer Battalion, also stationed at Camp Asaka.

Andrew and Shinji spent 8 weeks together previously during the Fall-season iteration of the Co-Op Program.*

“It’s always great to be with Shinji,” Gilbert said, a smirk forming across his face. “We can exchange laughs, exchange doctrine, and talk about each other’s work with an understanding that [surpasses language borders.]”

Center left, U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert, a project engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (USACE JED) Kanagawa Resident Office, was a guest at the Eastern Army’s camp for a week, participated in various activities, ranging from kenpo lessons, heavy equipment handling, and learning about the JGSDF engineering mission. Courtesy photo by U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert.
Center left, U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert, a project engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (USACE JED) Kanagawa Resident Office, was a guest at the Eastern Army’s camp for a week, participated in various activities, ranging from kenpo lessons, heavy equipment handling, and learning about the JGSDF engineering mission. (Photo by U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert)

Gilbert and Kohara, aside from being friends, also share very similar work responsibilities and roles. While Gilbert is now a project engineer working with civilians at The District, he used to be a platoon leader at an earlier assignment – something Lt. Kohara does now at Camp Asaka.

“Although JED has given me a great chance to work with some fantastic civilians, I sometimes miss working with Soldiers,” mentioned Gilbert. “That’s why it’s so great to talk shop with Shinji, because he still maintains that tactical engineer perspective of a platoon leader, which is the position I had at Ft. Bragg (Ft. Liberty).”

Starting bright and early Monday morning, Gilbert’s tour of Camp Asaka began with the military standard in-processing, with priority on making sure the JED lieutenant was settled in his quarters and checked-in with the JGSDF leadership.

“I met with the Soldiers in the 3rd company, met with the company commander, and the battalion staff, and was bombarded with questions,” said Gilbert. “They asked me everything from what my work culture is like at JED, to where I come from, and what hobbies I have.”

U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert, a project engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (USACE JED) Kanagawa Resident Office, operates an excavator at the Camp Asaka training ground, February 2023. (Photo by U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert)
U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert, a project engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (USACE JED) Kanagawa Resident Office, operates an excavator at the Camp Asaka training ground, February 2023. (Photo by U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert)

After a friendly interrogation and flurry of paperwork, Day 1 ended, and Gilbert returned to his hotel nearby to unwind.

Day 2, and the rest of the week by comparison, was much more action-packed – literally. A taiko drum demonstration, a martial arts exhibition, a base tour throughout, followed by a heavy equipment hands-on experience, and even a curry-cooking contest put the young engineer to the test, giving him a taste – literally and metaphorically, of what the JGSDF life was like.

“I got to break a sweat beating on some drums with the 3rd company, and afterward engaged in some Japanese Kempo, which is kind of like kickboxing with more bells and whistles.”

Kempo, a Japanese martial art, practiced wearing protective gear and gloves, allows full use of stand-up striking, throwing, and ground fighting. It is a staple martial art for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces training regiments.

Having previous boxing experience, Gilbert was confident in his skills – the additional advantage in height and weight only further boosted his confidence as he faced-off against his JGSDF counterparts in practice combat.

Although the statuesque American Soldier proved he could hold his own, the Japanese Kempo technicians on display managed to ground him a few times.

“One of their JGSDF members really rocked me with a kick,” Gilbert admitted. “I was on the floor seeing stars in my eyes, I probably looked like a character out of Looney Tunes, with the birds circling my head.”

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After being tested in combat, Gilbert was provided an informational tour around Camp Asaka by bicycle, where the JGSDF showed him some of their emergency response exercises, which is the primary and among the most-active functions of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

In between events and tours, Gilbert, the lone American Solider on the Japanese base, answered questions and posed for pictures with members of the JGSDF, swapped military patches, and even spoke with the Ōme City Mayor, where he discussed recruiting initiatives for the JGSDF and U.S. Army, furthering the positive relationships the two military entities celebrate.

Finally getting to the most exciting part of his journey, JED’s young lieutenant was brought to Camp Asaka’s engineering dig site.

With two excavators, a bulldozer, and a crater, Gilbert, like a child in a toy store, could barely contain himself.

“They let me drive around some of their dig equipment for a little while,” Gilbert said, beaming. “The controls were so intuitive, and had some great teachers help me maneuver everything – it was an absolute blast.”

U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert, a project engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (USACE JED) Kanagawa Resident Office, practices the use of a bulldozer at the Camp Asaka training ground, February 2023. (Photo by U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert)
U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert, a project engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (USACE JED) Kanagawa Resident Office, practices the use of a bulldozer at the Camp Asaka training ground, February 2023. (Photo by U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Andrew Gilbert)

Gilbert rounded out his visit with a curry cookoff, where he was a guest judge, and assisted in the set-up and preparation for a local festival to be held that weekend before his hosts gave him some parting gifts and parted ways.

“It was a short amount of time and felt even shorter because of the number of activities we did and fun we had,” said Gilbert. “It was a good busy, and far and away the best activity I did was operating the dig equipment.”

Although 1st Lieutenant Gilbert is back on home turf here at Camp Zama, his trip to Camp Asaka is never too far from his mind.

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“Embedding with the JGSDF at Camp Asaka was an experience I will never forget,” Gilbert reflected. “They really pulled out all the stops with welcoming me and teaching me about their engineering mission.”

Come June, he will relocate back to the United States for his next assignment, of which he is still unsure what it will be. What he does know, is that the memories he’s created in Japan, and with the JGSDF, will stay with him forever.

“My time in Japan has been an amazing chapter of my life, and I will leave here a better, more well-rounded person because of it,” Gilbert said.

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