Japan has been sending troops to the Yakima Training Center for 21 years. But for the first time, it sent one of its top Army commanders to observe this year’s exercises.
Lt. Gen. Koichi Isobe, a three-star general, is visiting the state this week to watch soldiers work with Stryker troops from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in an annual drill called Operation Rising Thunder.
The trip marks his third face-to-face meeting with JBLM senior Army officer Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza in the past five months, a sign of increasing partnerships between the two militaries.
“In the Asia Pacific region, there are many challenges and opportunities,” Isobe said. “Japan and the U.S. have many common values — democracy, freedom of navigation. We would like to have more of a relationship with the U.S. to keep freedom.”
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The exercises are taking place against a backdrop of an increasingly assertive China expanding its military presence in the region. China has ongoing territorial disputes with Japan and South Korea, as well as occasionally tense relationships with Indonesia and the Philippines.
Some U.S. allies have been increasing their defense budgets and signing agreements to allow American forces more access to their military bases. Japan’s Defense Ministry last week, for example, announced it was seeking a budget increase to buy new fighter jets, ships and surveillance aircraft.
Isobe last year visited an exercise in Southern California in which thousands of Marines demonstrated an amphibious landing and beach assault. He said his Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces are “considering” a similar maneuver at an upcoming exercise this winter.
That’s a more offensive operation than Japanese forces have practiced in the past. Since World War II, Japan’s military has had a charge only to protect its homeland, not to attack others.
“We would like to improve our combat skill and also interoperability” while training with American forces, Isobe said.