TIME Culture

How Japan’s Culture of Apologies Is Teaching Me to Stop Saying ‘I’m Sorry’ All the Time

Crumpled red paper heart with pen
Getty Images

I've caught myself apologizing to a table I jammed my toe on. The table and I are still friends

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

I’ve always been the one who feels a knee-jerk need to apologize for everything.

Very often I mean it. When you’ve had a bad day, when something sad or terrible happens to you, when I’ve done something stupid and my actions warrant an apology, you can count on me.

When an actual “I’m sorry” is necessary, you’ll never find a person more willing to gnaw on a piece of your frustration, anger, or sorrow with you. These past few years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to divvy out my “I’m sorries” much more judiciously so that they actually MEAN something. Most people deserve something more than a breathless attempt at smoothing things over.

However, when I’m nervous, unsure, or feeling guilty (whether it’s necessary or not), “I’m sorry” can become my version of “Oops” or worse, “Don’t you think you should say the same?” Ugh, passive-aggressive BS.

Lately, through all the struggles and victories of living in Japan, I’ve found “I’m sorry” popping up more and more in my English vocabulary. Some of it is an attempt at cultural acclimation, some of it is just plain old Default Louise trying to absorb some sort of real or perceived faux pas.

I could spend thousands of words talking about how I got this way — upbringing, social anxiety, people pleaser, self preservation, fear of judgement, blah blah blah — but whatever all of that amounts to, and while I begrudgingly accept this part of myself, it’s a part of me that is at times wholly useless.

For crapsake, I’ve caught myself apologizing to a table I jammed my toe on. The table didn’t care, and neither did all the people who weren’t there to witness it. The table and I are still friends.

I’m fully aware that an onslaught of apologies when I have no reason to be sorry is not only annoying but can be vaguely offensive. No Lou, you’re not sorry when the words just tumble out. What I’m actually saying is, “Don’t blame me” or “I feel dumb.”

I really started paying attention to how I handed out apologies when a dear friend and professional mentor finally snapped at me.

“Louise, cut out the ‘I’m sorries.’ You’re better than that. You don’t mean it, and you don’t have to. Don’t waste your words. Mean what you say.”

And all I wanted to do was say, “I’m sorry.”

It’s an ongoing battle. “I’m sorry” is not a prefix, a suffix, a qualifier, or a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for when I’m uncomfortable. But in Japan, I’m having to negotiate the “I’m sorries” in a whole new way.

From what I’ve observed so far, Japan is a culture of apologies. I’m not saying that Japanese people are insincere or pushovers. Far from it. Rush hour in a busy subway station or negotiating with the friendly but unwavering cell phone salesman over the up front, one year service payment due in CASH, will teach a person that right-quick.

What I am saying is that as a culture that is incredibly polite, sensitive, and gracious, apologizing is part of formal interaction. “Apologize first” is just the way things are done here. Often times when I’m out and about with fluent Japanese speakers, I’ll hear the nugget of a request or question imbedded deep within profuse apologies and slight bows. Yet despite the social requirement, people really seem to mean it when they apologize.

“I’m sorry I’m interrupting you…”

“I’m sorry that I don’t speak English/Japanese…”

“Excuse me, I’m sorry that I don’t know what this purple thing on your menu is. I’m sorry. Thank you!”

You’d think my compulsively apologizing little heart would rejoice! Well, it did at first. Every accident, every mistake, could be cleared with a “sumimasen” (I’m sorry). It was expected, it was welcomed, it was glorious.

But you can imagine the slippery slope this started. The apologies started seeping into my non-Japanese interactions.

My husband would step on MY foot and I’d apologize. A friend from America would call me on Skype two hours late, and I’d apologize. An expat friend would show up unannounced at my apartment, catching me in my full “Today Was Not Human Interaction Day” glory, and I’d apologize.

Since I’ve noticed my compulsion rearing its head again, I’ve been sorting through a duality I’ve never encountered before.

No, there isn’t some feral Louise roaming the streets of Yokohama maniacally apologizing to vending machines and gurgling infants, but this is my first experience immersing myself in a foreign culture and finding the balance between Japan Louise and American Louise is something that requires much more self awareness than I thought I was capable of.

I need to play by Japan’s rules to some extent. There is some pleasure in losing myself in the foreignness of it all, and just doing as I’m expected to do. It’s not always easy, but in the middle of it there’s a lesson in unclenching my ego. Japan doesn’t care if I find their customs “unusual” or “compromising” to my “individuality.” Their definitions of such are different, work just fine for most Japanese people, and have been around a lot longer than me.

When I find myself getting my kittens in a twist, I just remind myself that I don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid but I do have to respect it.

Look at me making discoveries all over the place!

But while I’m discovering all this in the context of my Japan life, I’m realizing that this is not an all-or-nothing situation. I can pass a lot of my Japanese cultural experience through my American filter.

I’m learning that ideally, the basic intent is the same anywhere: Be considerate of other people, and if you’re going to say, something say it with conviction. In other words, mean what you say.

When the Japanese people I’ve met here apologize, it appears as if they are genuinely sorry for having bothered me, that they appreciate that my time is valuable. They say it because it’s expected, but the intent is also expected. It’s not just empty words. There’s an unspoken willingness to start from a place of respect and go from there. I’m making a generalization — I’m new here and probably a little naive, but there is still something to be learned in that kind of interaction.

So while I don’t want to adopt the cultural norm of constantly apologizing, my constant apologizing within the context of my western culture can be quelled by taking a few lessons from the intentions of the people here.

I’m still working at it. There are still times I have to clamp my mouth shut to stop myself from apologizing to my American friends for the sound my nose makes when I breathe, but I’m making an honest effort to live by the mantra, “Mean what you say.”

During this time of trying to learn a foreign language, being keenly aware of every word that comes out of my mouth, I find that it’s worth applying that logic to my mother tongue. English may be easy for me, but it does not have to be thoughtless.

Louise Hung is a writer and theater director.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Japan

The Resignation of Two Ministers Spells Trouble for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japan minister resigns
Japanese Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi resigned on Oct. 20 amid allegations of misusing election funds Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

More ministers could fall as Japan faces political instability at the worst time

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed five women to his Cabinet last month in a major shakeup designed to show support for female empowerment and help smooth the way for an unpopular political agenda. But all that unraveled Monday with the abrupt resignation of two of those appointees—Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima—for campaign spending violations.

The controversies could not have come at a worse time for Abe. His economic policies are faltering and his Cabinet approval ratings had dropped below 50 percent even before the spending scandal broke last week. Abe faces tough decisions within the next few months on policy issues ranging from restarting nuclear reactors to imposing a second round of tax hikes. He’s also struggling to repair relations with China and South Korea over historical issues and territorial disputes, even as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing next month looms.

“Abe no longer seems the invincible Superman that some had imagined, and that weakens him both domestically and in Japan’s diplomatic dealings,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. “On all of his signature policies — ranging from nuclear reactor re-starts to arms exports, collective self defense and state secrecy legislation—a majority of the public is opposed.”

Trade Minister Obuchi and Justice Minister Matsushima submitted their resignations Monday. They were the first Cabinet members to step down since Abe took office in December 2012—a remarkable period of stability in Japanese politics, where ministers not infrequently are called upon to fall on their sword. It was also a reminder of Abe’s scandal-plagued and inefficient first term in 2006-7, which ended after barely a year. A pension records scandal and the suicide of his agriculture minister during an expense-spending probe, along with poor health for the Prime Minister himself, helped doom Abe’s first go-around.

Obuchi, 40, was accused of funneling campaign money to her sister and brother-in-law and to improperly subsidizing entertainment junkets for supporters. Matsushima stepped down for improperly distributing more than $100,000 worth of paper fans to constituents. Obuchi’s resignation in particular could be a major loss for Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. A telegenic mother of two, Obuchi had been expected to help Abe with the controversial restart of Japan’s nuclear power plants—a wide majority of the public remains opposed to atomic energy—shut down since the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Obuchi’s portfolio includes authority over the nation’s nuclear power plants and her softer image—a young mother, after all—was expected to soothe public anxiety over plans to restart the reactors. Obuchi is the daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who ran Japan from July 1998 to April 2000, and had even been touted as a possible successor to Abe somewhere down the road. But the close scrutiny that comes with a Cabinet appointment exposed her as a political lightweight and a product of the LDP machine, says Michael Cucek, a researcher and author of a respected political blog in Tokyo. “She represents someone who vaulted into prominence by the death of a sitting prime minister, taking over the family business without ever knowing much about how the whole machine works,” he said.

And that may not be the end of it. The remaining three female appointees have drawn heavy criticism, or worse, for alleged connections to neo-Nazi or right-wing fringe organizations, or for visiting the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine. A 2011 photo of Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi posing with the leader of the National Socialist Japanese Workers Party was discovered on the group’s website shortly after Takaichi’s appointment last month. Postings on Yamada’s blog seem to profess admiration for Adolf Hitler, and videos posted on the website show Yamada and group members wearing stylized swastikas. Takaichi said she was unaware of Yamada’s affiliation when the photo was taken and that it had been posted to the group’s website without her knowledge. She said she asked for the photo to be removed as soon as she learned of it, and that the group complied.

Similarly, a 2009 photo of National Public Safety Commission chief Eriko Yamatani posing with the members of the far- as Zaitokukai group, which has mounted virulent street demonstrations and hate speeches against ethnic Koreans and other foreigners living in Japan. Yamatani also said she was unaware that her photo had been taken with members of the group or that it had been posted online. She said it was taken down at her request after she learned of it.

On Saturday, all the three of the remaining female Cabinet appointees made formal visits to Yasukuni, where 14 convicted “Class A” war criminals—leaders of wartime Japan—are enshrined. That drew a rebuke from China, which remains deeply skeptical of Abe’s revisionist views of history. That visit will complicate Abe’s efforts to repair relations with Japan’s neighbors—and maybe its citizens, says Kingston. “I think there is a great wave of schadenfreude sweeping across East Asia as Abe’s gathering woes weaken his political standing. The Japanese public, too, are happy to see the Abe juggernaut sputtering as Abenomics fizzles and his culture war to redefine national identity backfires.”

Read next: Japan Court Orders Google to Remove Search Results

TIME Physics

Why LED Lights Won the Nobel Prize

Chances are you're using an LED right now

You might have heard that researchers, two Japanese and one American, recently won the Nobel Prize for Physics for inventing blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), but you might not know what LEDs are and why they’re important. With energy-saving light bulbs becoming more commonplace and smartphone use as widespread as ever, there might be more LEDs in your life than you realize.

TIME Japan

Three U.S. Airmen Missing After Typhoon Hits Okinawa

JAPAN-VOLCANO-MISSING-TYPHOON-WEATHER
This NASA satellite image shows Typhoon Phanfone in the western Pacific Ocean on Oct. 3, 2014. AFP/Getty Images

One body was found, the coastguard said

Update: Oct. 6, 6:19 a.m. ET

A powerful typhoon lashed southern Japan on Sunday, churning up high waves that washed three American airmen out to sea and killed at least one before taking aim at Tokyo. Elsewhere in the Pacific, a separate typhoon whipped the Mariana Islands, including Guam, with high winds and heavy rain.

By late Sunday, Typhoon Phanfone was off the coast of Shikoku in southwestern Japan, with winds of up to 144 kilometers (90 miles) per hour after hitting the regions of Okinawa and Kyushu, Japan’s Meteorological Agency said…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Japan

Toxic Gases Force Rescuers to Flee Volcano Death Zone in Japan

Japan Volcano Rescue
Japan's Self Defense Force soldiers carry an injured climber from the ash covered top of Mount Ontake at Nagano prefecture, one day after Japan's volcano Ontake erupted in central Japan, Sept. 28, 2014. AFP/Getty Images

TOKYO — The death toll after a volcano erupted in Japan looked certain to rise to 36 on Monday after rescuers found five more bodies on the ash-covered mountain, police said.

The discovery came just before the 540 emergency service personnel were forced to abandon 10,062-foot Mt. Ontake because of the high level of toxic gases, Nagano Prefectural Police said. It was the first fatal eruption in modern times on Mt. Ontake, which is located 125 miles west of Tokyo. The volcano rained down rocks and hot ash without warning onto hikers.

“I felt a hot wind blast against my back and crouched down to the ground,” one man told NTV…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Japan

Recovery of Bodies Under Way at Japanese Volcano

Japan Volcano
Rescue workers carry a climber recovered from Mount Ontake into an ambulance in Kiso, in central Japan, on Sept. 28, 2014 Kyodo News—AP

At least 31 people are believed to have died

(TOKYO)— Military and other rescue workers began airlifting more than two dozen bodies from the ash-blanketed peak of a Japanese volcano on Monday morning, as family members of the missing waited at a nearby elementary school.

At least 31 people are believed to have died. Four victims were flown down Sunday, and rescuers returned to 3,067-meter (10,062-foot) Mt. Ontake on Monday morning to recover the remaining 27.

Scenes broadcast live on Japanese TV station TBS showed soldiers carrying yellow body bags one-by-one to a camouflage military helicopter that had landed in a relatively wide-open area of the now bleak landscape, its rotors still spinning.

The first bodies were flown to a nearby athletic field, its green grass and surrounding forested hills contrasting with Mt. Ontake’s ash-gray peak in the background, a reduced plume still emerging from its crater.

There, they were transferred to white police vans, while two dozen officers struggled to hold up long blue tarps under the spinning rotors, blocking the view from the media.

The four brought down Sunday have been confirmed dead, said Takehiko Furukoshi, a Nagano prefecture crisis-management official.

The 27 others are listed as having heart and lung failure, the customary way for Japanese authorities to describe a body until police doctors can examine it.

Saturday’s eruption was the first fatal one in modern times at Mount Ontake, a popular climbing destination 210 kilometers (130 miles) west of Tokyo on the main Japanese island of Honshu. A similar eruption occurred in 1979, but no one died.

Japanese media reported that some of the bodies were found in a lodge near the summit and that others were buried in ash up to 50 centimeters (20 inches) deep. Police said only two of the four confirmed dead had been identified. Both were men, ages 23 and 45.

Mount Ontake erupted shortly before noon at perhaps the worst possible time, with at least 250 people taking advantage of a beautiful fall Saturday to go for a hike. The blast spewed large white plumes of gas and ash high into the sky, blotted out the midday sun and blanketed the surrounding area in ash.

Hundreds were initially trapped on the slopes, though most made their way down by Saturday night.

About 40 people who were stranded overnight came down on Sunday. Many were injured, and some had to be rescued by helicopters or carried down on stretchers. By nightfall, all the injured had been brought down, officials said.

Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency tallied 37 injured people and said it was trying to update the number still missing.

Furukoshi said rescuers gave priority to helping the survivors come down, leaving behind those who were obviously without hope.

Survivors told Japanese media that they were pelted by rocks. One man said he and others went into the basement of a lodge, fearing that the rocks would penetrate the roof. He covered himself with a futon, a thin Japanese mattress, for protection.

“Even small eruptions can cause major damage if people are around, as they get hit by rocks that come flying,” Nagoya University volcanologist Koshun Yamaoka said at a news conference Sunday.

Volcanoes can also kill by spewing toxic gases and lung-choking ash.

Shinichi Shimohara, who works at a shrine at the foot of the mountain, said he was on his way up Saturday morning when he heard a loud noise that sounded like strong winds followed by “thunder” as the volcano erupted.

TIME Japan

Japanese Volcano Erupts, 30 Believed Dead

The volcano's first eruption since 2007 left a wide area with six inches of ash on the ground

Updated Sept. 28, 9:17am ET

A volcanic eruption at Mount Ontake on Saturday is believed to have killed at least 30 people, after sending massive plumes of ash and stones into the sky.

Rescue workers found around 30 bodies near the mountain’s peak one day after the volcano erupted, the Associated Press reports. All were unconscious and believed to be deceased. Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency said earlier that 45 were reported missing.

Up to six inches of ash spewed onto a large area surrounding the 10,120-foot peak in the mountain’s first eruption since 2007, as captured by a YouTube user in the above video.

“It was like thunder,” a woman who runs a lodge near the summit told Japanese broadcaster NHK. “There are 15cm (six inches) of ash on the ground.”

The volcano, which sits on the border of Nagano and Gifu prefectures to the west of the country’s main island, last erupted in 1979.

[Associated Press]

 

TIME Japan

The High School Where Japan’s Kids Learn to Become Soldiers

A look inside the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force's High Technical School

Playing soldier isn’t what many Japanese kids today grow up doing. After its brutal march across Asia was halted by the Allies in World War II, imperial Japan accepted a U.S.-written constitution that limited its armed forces from engaging in offensive action.

Despite these constraints, some young Japanese are eager to serve their country. Each year, 4,500 students apply to gain admission to the sole high school run by the nation’s army, which is known as the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. Only 300 applicants gain admission.

Nearly all of the JGSDF High Technical School’s students pursue army careers. They could well see more action. In July, Japan’s hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed a reinterpretation of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution that would allow the nation to engage in what’s called collective self-defense, or the ability to defend allies that are under attack.

But all that war-gaming is in the future. As photographer Chris McGrath shows, life at the JGSDF High Technical School, which opened in 1955, is a mash-up of boot camp and science fair. Students build robots then retreat to bunks in Spartan dorms. There’s plenty of marching, plus the rigor of Japanese martial arts like judo. What could be more enticing for a patriotic young Japanese?

TIME Japan

Japan’s Annual Dolphin Hunt Has Resumed

Fishermen in wetsuits hunt dolphins at a cove in Taiji
Fishermen hunt dolphins at a cove in Taiji, western Japan, on Jan. 20, 2014 Adrian Mylne—Reuters

The slaughter made infamous in the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove is still happening

The Japanese coastal village of Taiji has begun its annual dolphin hunt again this month, CNN reports.

The hunt, which runs from September to March, has long been the focus of outrage among environmental activists and was even made into an Oscar-winning documentary in 2009 called The Cove.

However, locals in Taiji, a town in Wakayama prefecture with a population of 3,500, say that hunting dolphins and whales is crucial to the region’s economy.

They appear to have the support of the Wakayama prefectural government, which declined CNN’s request for an interview but referred them to a statement on its website that calls dolphins and whales a legitimate marine resource.

“Located far away from the centers of economic activity, the town has a 400-year history as the cradle of whaling, and has flourished over the years thanks to whaling and the dolphin fishery,” the statement says.

Environmental organizations like Sea Shepherd, which has been broadcasting a live feed of the hunts for the past five years and running a robust social-media campaign against them, say the dolphins are tortured and treated inhumanely before they are killed.

The dolphins are captured and killed using a method known as “drive hunting,” which involves boatmen banging metal poles to cause deafness and disorientation in the dolphins, who then swim away from the boats and straight into the killing cove.

“Once netted into the cove, the dolphins are literally wrangled and tethered, often sustaining bloody wounds … The dolphin hunters use large metal rods to penetrate the spinal cord,” said Melissa Sehgal, Sea Shepherd’s campaign coordinator for the Taiji project.

Sehgal said the dolphins do not die immediately but are left to bleed out or drown in their own blood, a practice she described as “barbaric.”

Although most of the marine mammals are killed and sold for meat, a few choice specimens are captured. Captive dolphins can reportedly fetch over $100,000 from aquariums.

Sea Shepherd estimates that over the past three hunting seasons, there have been nearly 2,600 dolphins killed and a little under 500 taken captive.

[CNN]

TIME Japan

U.S. and Japanese Forces Lock and Load With One Eye on China

Japan-U.S. Joint Drill Begins
U.S. Marines and members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force line up before a joint exercise at the JGSDF's Aibano facility in Takashima, Japan, on Oct. 8, 2013 The Asahi Shimbun

And China's leaders have, in turn, become increasingly wary

When U.S. Marines stormed ashore during a beach-landing exercise in Okinawa recently, they weren’t alone. Charging alongside them was a group of Japanese soldiers assigned to live and train with the Marines and learn the basics of amphibious warfare.

“When they landed on the beach, it was difficult to tell who was who, which was an impressive feat,” said Colonel Romin Dasmalchi, a Marine commander.

The beach drill was just the latest in a dramatic increase in joint training activities between U.S. and Japanese forces. The goal is to broaden Japan’s military capabilities, weave U.S. and Japanese forces ever closer together and solidify the U.S. “pivot” to Asia.

On almost any day, U.S. and Japanese ground troops, sailors or aircrews can be found practicing combat skills side by side or preparing for major training operations throughout the Japanese archipelago, and across the Pacific.

Day-to-day coordination is up as well. U.S. Marines now have full-time liaison officers with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) in Tokyo and southern Japan. And JGSDF officers are assigned to Marine headquarters in Okinawa, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., and Quantico, Va.

That’s a deep sea change from even a few years ago, when most U.S. and Japanese forces had little direct contact, says Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo and former liaison officer between U.S. Marines and the JGSDF.

“There is both a qualitative and quantitative difference in training these days. We are beginning to train together jointly, instead of the traditional parallel arrangement,” Newsham says.

U.S. and Japanese officials agreed during talks in Tokyo in 2012 to boost joint training and improve interoperability. That was due in part to lessons learned from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan — where there were communication and coordination breakdowns — as well as concerns over China’s rapid military buildup and aggressive territorial demands.

Much of the new training is focused on improving Japan’s ability to defend its sprawling southwest islands chain.

That has not gone unnoticed in China, which claims historical ownership of some of those islands. Chinese leaders are increasingly wary of both the U.S. pivot and the Abe administration’s efforts to boost defense spending and ease restrictions on Japan’s powerful but low-profile military.

“The PLA [People's Liberation Army], as well as the mass media, are certainly very sensitive to these joint training and exercise programs between the U.S. and Japan, especially the increasing amphibious war-fighting capability,” says Yu Tiejun, deputy director of Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies, in Beijing.

“These joint training activities will not only intensify the security dilemma that’s already there, but also trigger the escalation of the arms race in this region,” Yu says.

With a defense budget only about a third of China’s and with just a modest spending increases planned for the coming years, it is not clear that Japan is bent on an arms race.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Japan is boosting the size, scope and frequency with which it trains with, and learns from, the powerful Americans.

In 2006, for example, the JGSDF sent just a couple dozen soldiers to take part in the Marines’ annual Iron Fist exercise in Southern California. Those soldiers took part in only a few phases of the weeks-long drill.

Now, more than 300 troops take part in the full exercise each year, including live-fire training and force-on-force drills against the battle-tested Americans.

Last year, the JGSDF launched a new exercise with the Marines in California, called Dawn Blitz. Tokyo sent a flotilla of warships packed with ground troops, landing craft, helicopters, vehicles and other heavy equipment all the way across the Pacific for two weeks of hard training with the Marines.

For the next edition of Dawn Blitz, in spring 2015, the Japanese have said they hope to send fighter planes as well. Close air support is essential element of amphibious warfare, but one that requires sophisticated skills.

Less noticeable but perhaps equally significant is a program launched in 2013, in which a platoon (about 30 soldiers) of JGSDF is assigned to the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Those troops live and train with the Marines for a period of up to three months. That includes, in most cases, clambering aboard U.S. Navy assault ships to cruise the Asia-Pacific region alongside the Marines (if the Marines are called into combat, however, Japan’s pacifist constitution requires that the Japanese troops off-load at the nearest location and return to Japan).

Colonel Takayasu Iwakami, training and exercise director for the JGSDF, says the overall goal is to develop both tactical skill and the ability to operate seamlessly with the Marines in wartime conditions — should that become necessary.

“We are trying to develop an amphibious warfare capability, but we don’t have the knowledge yet. The Marines have the experience of real war so they know much more about it, and we can learn from them,” Iwakami says. “But it’s not just a matter of how frequently we train together, or even the type of training that we do. It’s also about developing a deep sense of understanding and trust for each other.”

That also has benefits for the Marines. With land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all but over, thousands of Marines have returned to their bases in Okinawa. Training opportunities are limited there, however, and the Marines have begun training more frequently at JGSDF at bases on the main islands.

“Even though we were in Japan and trained in Japan, we didn’t put as much effort into training with the Japanese as we should have,” says Major Eric Mattson, who heads the Marines’ joint training program in Japan.

“Now it’s ‘Let’s do some real training. Put them on our ships. Let them see how we live, see how we train. Do all that right along with them.’ And then we go up to their ranges, stay on their bases, fire their weapons. So it has tangible benefits for us,” says Mattson.

Even the U.S. Navy, which has long had a close relationship with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), is upping the frequency and sophistication with which it trains with its counterpart.

Earlier this year, for example, U.S. warships completed a complex live-fire exercise off the coast of Guam with eight JMSDF ships, including naval gunnery, antisubmarine warfare, tactical maneuvering and communication drills.

Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the Yokosuka-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, says U.S. and Japanese ships now work together “virtually every day.”

“Our operations with the JMSDF are focused on high-end interoperability, so often the quality of the training is even more important than quantity,” Thomas says.

Both the frequency and scope of U.S.-Japan training is almost certain to increase.

Japan plans to field a 3,000-man amphibious warfare unit, based in southern Japan, no later than 2018. They will use the same amphibious assault vehicles, V-22 Osprey aircraft and other equipment used by the Marines and Navy. That will require close coordination with Americans.

That’s not a bad thing, says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a think tank in Honolulu.

The Chinese are likely to complain no matter how much or how little U.S. forces train with the Japanese, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to ease restrictions on Japan’s military are likely to remain tempered by public opinion, Glosserman says.

“I like the idea of our armed forces training so much with other countries’ militaries. It increases familiarity, reminds our military that all armies don’t fight alike, and the better that we understand those differences among our partners, the smarter we can be. What’s not to like?”

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