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III MEF Marines strengthen bonds with Japanese military during Exercise Yama Sakura

Marine Corps News

Release Date: 1/20/2004

Story by 1st Lt. Al Eskalis

CAMP ASAKA, Japan -- More than 170 Marines and Sailors from III Marine Expeditionary Force arrived in this Japanese Ground Self Defense Force camp, on the outskirts of Tokyo, this week to participate in Exercise Yama Sakura, the largest bilateral exercise conducted in Japan.

The exercise, scheduled to begin Jan. 25, joins units from III MEF, U.S. Army Forces Japan, Army's I Corps from Fort Lewis, Wash., various reserve units from the United States and the Japanese Eastern Army, headquartered here, in an effort to improve U.S.-Japanese interoperability while providing for the mutual defense of Japan.

"This is a great moment in time for us, given all the world events that are going on, to train not only with our counterparts in the Army and other services, but to train with our counterparts and allies in the Japanese Self Defense Force," said Marine Col. John Flanagan, 3rd Marine Division Operations officer and Scranton, Pa., native.

"We've had a long standing, close relationship with the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force and this is a great opportunity for us to learn from each other."

Exercise Yama Sakura, meaning mountain of cherry blossoms in Japanese, is a command post evolution that uses computer-generated scenarios to exercise military staff interaction between both countries' militaries on various levels. The focus of the exercise is the defense of Japan.

"Everyone down to the lowest ranking Marine will walk away from this exercise with the realization of what we would actually have to do if we were called upon to defend Japan alongside our friends in the Self Defense Force," said Master Gunnery Sgt. James T. Otten, 3rd Marine Division Operations Chief and Pembroke, N.C., native. "It gives everyone involved a real sense of belonging and shows them how important their jobs really are."

Planning and coordination for Yama Sakura has been months in the making for the Marines of III MEF. Beginning in April 2003, Marines from III MEF joined forces with their counterparts from I Corps and the Japanese Eastern Army in mapping out an exercise that shared one common goal - a better understanding of each other's warfighting capability.

"The greatest value in this exercise is in the exchange of ideas and planning concepts between us and the Army's I Corps on a joint level and with our allies in the Eastern Army on a combined level," said Marine Lt. Col. Pete B. Baumgarten, one of the primary planners for Exercise Yama Sakura and an El Paso, Texas, native. "There's a tremendous learning value in seeing how each of us conducts planning on an operational and tactical level."

For many of the III MEF Marines and sailors participating in the exercise, this is their first introduction to the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force and the unique culture of Mainland Japan.

"I've really been impressed with how they (Japanese Ground Self Defense Force) have taken care of us. They've rolled out the red carpet," said Marine 2nd Lt. George Economou, an intelligence officer with the 3d Marine Division and a Centereach, N.Y., native. "It's been exciting seeing how we can help them improve their operations and how they can help us find more efficient ways of doing our operations."

Exercise Yama Sakura began in 1982 as a simple board game exercise and grew to feature computer simulations in 1993. The computer simulated command post exercise has evolved from a Corps-level, tactical and operational exercise to one that places emphasis on stability, support and tactical operations. The exercise normally rotates among the five regional armies in Japan, with the Japanese Eastern Army taking the lead on this year's exercise. The Japanese Northern Army conducted last year's Yama Sakura exercise.

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