It was a full day of trains and walking to get from an ancient mountain town to the coast, then down to Yokota Air Base, on the western edge of Tokyo. I was meeting one of my oldest friends there, a retired US Army sergeant-major named Frenchy, who was my boss in military diving. We have traveled often since, including to Vietnam and Russia. Now we would spend two nights at the US Air Force base, where he got reduced hotel rates, and regroup before pushing on.
Yokota’s mission is to “execute rapid global mobility through agile airlift operations across the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” and to serve as headquarters for US Forces Japan. As part of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960, Yokota is one of 85 US facilities on three Japanese islands, with personnel numbering “38,000 ashore and 11,000 afloat.” The US military also employs 25,000 Japanese.
I walked to the wrong gate, well after dark, where two confused but polite American MPs looked at my passport carefully and told me to walk down the highway with my bags to the main gate. After an exhaustive check-in process with fingerprints—by Japanese civilian security contractors—I was allowed on base with Frenchy. His room at the Air Force Inn was basic but comfortable, and he had a sandwich and whiskey waiting for my dinner. He had been killing time until I arrived.
He was surprised to hear I had walked the Basho trail alone and asked what I had learned. I told him I found joy. There was a pause as he carefully brought out a pile of origami cranes.
“I got these nice things from some Japanese ladies,” he said. “They brought me joy. Every time I walked through the PX they handed me a crane, until I had to start avoiding them.”
If you have never visited an American military installation, they are usually bland, utilitarian, and sunbaked, with the charm of minimum-security prisons. For anyone who has served, though, they can be oddly comforting, especially abroad. There is a feeling of safety on them, even when there is no danger, and of course America brings itself along wherever it goes.
Yokota’s PX, or post exchange, was basically a Walmart. The commissary, or supermarket, had everything you could want from the States or Japan. Mess halls were open almost round-the-clock to feed shift workers and air crews. An omelet with everything was three dollars, which included a 33% surcharge to pay Japanese contractors. Little signs on the food helped personnel make healthy choices, warning that bacon “Does not promote good activity choices.”
There was a teen club on base (Yokota was an accompanied tour, which means dependents were allowed), convenience stores, gas stations, a movie theater, and four-color magazine. Pizza Hut and Subway delivered. Everything was American-sized. I had been eating grilled fish, pickled vegetables, and rice, and my guts mutinied over a Popeyes three-piece.
The Air Force had no room at the Inn our second night but kindly moved us across the runway to a family neighborhood near the base hospital, where we lodged in a three-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of one of several identical buildings. The apartment had a living room and a huge kitchen, with a yellowing dishwasher, microwave, washer, and dryer, and a swinging door to the dining room, like something from Leave It to Beaver. Every room had its own TV, with outdated video gear, and decent art on the walls. Every room had its own air conditioner. Stickers on the furniture said things like, “Description: B-4304, Kadena Style 6 Drawer Dresser, Asset Number 00000, Date Placed in Service: 04-SEP-2012; Activity Code: 0000, Cost Center 000000.” The rusted balconies could not be used.
The apartment had been very nice quarters once, probably for officers’ families in transit, and was still functional and spacious and smelled like 1965. It cost Frenchy $77 for the night.
The overall effect of being thrust into this aging patch of the American empire was powerful, like encountering an artifact that stood for an entire distant culture. Yokota was supported artificially by money and might; it was dated but functioning, and for the moment still stood for agreements in place for 70 years.
But those agreements are coming apart, as the US administration denigrates them and our partners decide they want other things, such as US troops off their soil. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party won a majority of votes last week in the upper house of Parliament but did not get the super-majority they were hoping for to change Japan’s pacifist constitution. Abe plans a national referendum to make it happen.
“With China flexing its muscles, I have no doubt that in my lifetime the Japanese will have a standing army and a navy again,” Frenchy told me as we walked across Yokota. “And we will be gone. Redistributed in the Philippines. Vietnam, maybe.” He was no isolationist, but he believed the countries of Southeast Asia better strengthen their own alliances against China and Russia.