Cover photo: My jump certificate from the Japanese Special Operations Group.
“…after a 58-year hiatus, Japan reentered the Special Operations arena and made a lot of people nervous.”
Colonel Aomori looked at his clumsy sketch and scratched his head. There was an eagle, a sword, and the red circle of the rising sun but something was not right. Frustrated, he almost welcomed the interruption by the intercom on his desk. He pushed a button and the voice of his receptionist reported in formal, yet very feminine Japanese. “Mrs. Kato is here sir.”
“Please, send her in,” he commanded. He stood and moved from behind his desk to greet his visitor, a sublime Asian beauty in a short, form-fitting dress and four-inch designer heels. He glanced at the large diamond on his shapely visitor’s left hand; a gift from her American husband whom Aomori had never met. He bowed deeply with his face towards the floor in deference to her elegant and powerful demeanor and to the unofficial sponsors she represented. She mirrored him in the traditional Japanese way and with characteristic formality handed him a coin from the 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Group.
“A gift from Colonel Gilmore,” she said, bowing apologetically. “He regrets he wasn’t able to meet you during your visit to Fort Lewis.” Accepting the gift, Aomori offered her a seat and the pair caught up briefly over tea. She inquired about the sketches.
“It’s supposed to be the crest of the new unit,” he said. “but I just can’t seem to get it right.”
She looked briefly at the shapes on the page and gestured with a manicured fingertip: “Place a wreath around the rising sun with the eagle and sword in the foreground. That will tie it all together and give it depth.” Aomori’s face lit up and he slapped the table. His guest had just put the finishing touches on the crest of the Japanese Special Operations Group, a unit that did not officially exist. She smiled and proposed they discuss the business that brought her to his office.
A Secret Mission
There is a belief among the uninformed that the Japanese Army is not predisposed to the conduct of Special Operations. Though mistaken, the idea springs from a kernel of truth in the narrative. For a long time Japan lacked a special operations capability. Since the end of the Second World War it has actually lacked an army. Instead they have a ground “self-defense force.” Japanese officers are known for rigidity, reverence for authority, and adherence to hierarchy. These are not traits that lead to success in Special Operations and this feeds the common misperception about Japan’s ability to conduct them.
But Japan’s martial history suggests otherwise. In fact, their Special Operations tradition can be traced back probably to the Shogunate but certainly to the Second World War where most of their initial conquests were enabled by special operations. During that conflict, graduates of the Intelligence School at Nakano formed a cadre of administrators that made the Japanese empire function. In their role as governors, industrialists, commandos, and secret policemen, Nakano School graduates parachuted onto strategic targets, raised guerilla armies, and conjured industrial economies from agricultural societies. They were fantastically creative and successful at what they did but the Bushido code of honor that underpinned Imperial Japan’s military culture enabled a brutality that earned them the undying enmity of many Asian societies. These long-held memories of suffering still poison Japan’s relations in Asia. Despite this, after a 58-year hiatus, the Japanese reentered the Special Operations arena in 2003. In doing so, they reclaimed a previously taboo piece of their military history and made a lot of people nervous.
Colonel Aomori and his staff had the task to develop the capabilities required for modern special operations. For this they would follow a time-tested formula of Japanese military modernization: they would copy the work of others and perfect it. To this end they approached the Special Operations Forces (SOF) of the United States and France; and most likely also Germany and Great Britain, whom the Japanese recognize as leaders in the field. With the help of these allies Colonel Aomori devised the doctrine, organization, selection and training processes, equipment, facilities, and policies that would become the Japanese Special Operations Group. Among the first stops on their guided research tour was the Asia Pacific-oriented 1st Special Forces Group at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Eager to begin, the Japanese hastily and secretly organized their visit to 1st Group, leaving their American hosts with very little information about the composition of their delegation or even its members’ skills in English. Thinking quickly, 1st Group drafted Mrs. Kato, wife of one of their officers, into service as an interpreter for the program. After three days of social and professional interaction with Colonel Aomori and his staff, she became the de facto – though unofficial – intermediary between Japanese and US SOF. In one of those oddities of history, the glamorous Japanese wife of an American officer became the indispensable conduit for a stream of requests for information on myriad sensitive issues related to building a unit: weapons specifications, tactical advancements, doctrine and policy, training, selection, and more. More interesting perhaps is that those requests flowed from the Japanese headquarters in Narashino through her unclassified Gmail address to the inner circle of the US SOF enterprise.
I looked at Major Yamanaka quizzically as if he had just told me a joke in Greek. “What do you mean you’ve never jumped off the ramp?” I was referring to the lowered ramp of a C-130 aircraft in flight.
“Never.” The plain-looking officer responded with that characteristically Japanese look of embarrassment many American officers mistake for sheepishness. This was the first warning I ignored and I should have known better. I had a lot of experience with the Japanese and had received the same look often enough. Timidity was almost never behind it. Subconsciously I knew there was more to the story than simple inexperience but Yamanaka didn’t have an explanation other than it had something to do with their French parachutes…Warning number two. I shrugged, told Yamanaka not to worry, and sent him and his men to ‘pre-jump’. I made a mental note to put them at the front of the stick so we could keep an eye on them and their parachutes.
I was proud of the Japanese commandos. They had come a long way in the nine years since Colonel Aomori’s visit to Fort Lewis. We had worked with them in training in the US and Japan but this was the first time Japanese SOF was operating outside either of those controlled environs and they were being very careful. Their participation in this exercise in Thailand was controversial. SOF units are strike forces and the Thais – as well as all their neighbors – have unhappy memories of Japanese offensive power and the Bushido code that underpinned it. On more than one occasion Thai planners asked me to intervene to thwart the Japanese ambition to participate as an exercise training audience. Sensing Thai hesitation, the Japanese then asked me to convince our hosts to change their minds. Recognizing the sensitivity of what they were both asking me to do, I declined to put the United States in the middle of what was essentially a Thai-Japanese bilateral issue. They would have to sort it out themselves I told them. What fun.
The deployment was also controversial within Japan itself as some believed it violated Article 9 of Japan’s constitution. Article 9 renounces war as a means of international relations and limits Japanese forces to defensive roles within the territory of Japan. The mere existence of a special operations unit would have been unthinkable, if not outright illegal, just a few years earlier so Major Yamanaka was eager to remain in the shadows. Yet here we were, preparing to jump from an aircraft in flight into a simulated combat zone on the Thai-Laotian frontier.
Our Idea is from Bushido
Two days later, my legs buckled and I briefly hung on the anchor line as the MC-130 lurched through the mountains. More than once I lost my balance and groped at the windowless skin of the aircraft for support. I watched with a bit of a smile as the jumpmaster, silhouetted in the bright square of the open ramp, vomited into his shirt between jump commands. A really ancient Thai soldier wearing an even more ancient HALO rig looked at me stoically.
‘A little vomit wouldn’t bother me either if I was about to jump that thing‘ I thought wryly.
Just then, with a long banked turn to the left, the black bird popped up a bit and achieved level flight. Seconds later the light turned green and we were off to the races knowing we had only eight seconds of drop zone for 15 jumpers.
As we pushed quickly to the ramp, I felt a twinge of alarm as the first two parachutes, the French ones, opened inside the aircraft. They completely filled the open door and engulfed the next jumper in a cloud of green nylon before instantly disappearing below the ramp. I will never know how they managed to avoid being hung up in the door. When the first American jumper, our company First Sergeant, prepared to exit the aircraft he was struck squarely in the face by a flailing French deployment bag. The impact nearly knocked him back and I realized then why the Japanese had never jumped ramp: their French static lines were simply too short. I immediately regretted not investigating further.
Our drop zone that day was a communal farm plot in the center of the Thai village of Ban Wai. For many reasons that had nothing to do with the exercise scenario, this was a non-tactical jump in the middle of the afternoon. According to the Thai Special Forces soldiers that jumped with us, the villagers in this remote part of northern Thailand hadn’t seen a parachute drop – or an American paratrooper – in 30 years…We should expect a warm reception if we survived the jump. Ban Wai was the most dangerous drop zone I had ever seen. Not only was it extremely short and the temperatures very high, the farm plots were studded with dangerous bamboo frames and 18-inch furrows, and surrounded by deep irrigation ditches. Somehow, despite the drama of the French parachutes and the bamboo spears, our only casualty was our First Sergeant’s face. Thankfully he was uninjured though sore for three straight days.
Safely on the ground, we were instantly surrounded by an entire village in celebration. Barbecues produced fantastic delicacies as fast as we could eat them. Beers were thrust into our hands out of nowhere and loud Thai music was blaring from several cars parked on the edges of the field. We kissed babies and posed for pictures with blushing girls. We’re not entirely certain but we think our medic – the image of a blonde Hollywood action hero – may have been unwittingly betrothed to the local beauty queen. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever attended and I was all smiles when Major Yamanaka and his staff pulled me off to the side and presented me a coin from their unit.
I turned the rare and beautiful piece over in my hand appreciatively, noting with a raised eyebrow the inscription on the front: ‘Our idea comes from Bushido‘. “Why do you honor me with this?” I asked.
Yamanaka looked at me quizzically as if I had just told him a joke in Greek. “It’s a gift from Colonel Aomori,” he said. “your wife designed our unit crest.”
Author’s Note: All the names in this story (except my wife’s) have been altered to protect the identities of the Japanese officers.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He has jumped the ramp before.