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Japanese troops train at Camp Pendleton for island defense

February 20, 2011 |  8:39 am

Japanese troops at Camp Pendleton
Japanese troops from the Western Area Infantry Regiment are assaulting the green hills of Camp Pendleton in operation Iron Fist. 

For a month, about 200 Japanese troops are training with Marines -- leading to a “final exam” where together they will launch a mock amphibious assault against a common enemy.

“Both sides are teaching and learning from each other,” said Marine Col. Michael Hudson, commander of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

This is not the first time Japan has sent troops here for training, but this year’s exercise appears larger, more militarily robust.  Tanks are being used for the first time.

Japan’s latest defense policy calls for a new concept, called “dynamic proactive defense,” said Akihisa Nagashima, lower house member of the Democratic Party of Japan and former parliamentary vice minister of defense.

Japanese troops, he said, will need to be “mobile, flexible and ready to respond quickly” -- the kinds of skills that Marines are known for. More training exercises with Marines are likely, Nagashima said.

Although Japan’s Cold War strategy focused on the Hokkaido region of northern Japan, the new policy includes a greater focus on the South China Sea and the western Pacific, including sending troops to Japan’s southernmost island of Yonaguni to “reclaim control of any island should the need arise,” Nagashima said.

Japan’s post-World War II reluctance to develop a military is waning in light of increased tension with North Korea and China, said Ellis Krauss, professor and Japan expert at the graduate school of international relations and Pacific studies at UC San Diego.

The amphibious assault training, Krauss said, is most likely preparing Japan to “rush to the defense of its many relatively unprotected southern islands in case the Chinese or North Koreans try to take them back.”

For Iron Fist, the Japanese brought their own Toyota-built trucks and Humvees. The Marines are supplying tanks and rotary-wing aircraft. Officers receive a combined briefing each morning, with translation. The two forces eat in the same chow hall.

The Japanese troops went to San Clemente Island for live-fire training and also deployed to the “Infantry Immersion Trainer” on Camp Pendleton, a faux Afghan village complete with role players and simulated roadside bombs.

The final exam, set for early March, will be a weeklong, ship-based exercise involving troops from both countries coming ashore at the beaches where Marines trained for the World War II landings.

It is the kind of training that would be useful if the Japanese needed to move quickly to one of their islands and set up a defensive perimeter to repel an assault, Hudson said.

The Japanese “want to develop the capability to deal with any threat to defend our country,” said Maj. Kuzuya Ono as he watched his troops working in coordination with Marines driving tanks.

-- Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton and Yuriko Nagano in Tokyo

Photo: Marines and Japanese troops training at Camp Pendleton.  Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times