Dug in alongside a mountain road, the low-slung Japanese tank could barely be seen. The tank was elaborately camouflaged with the care of a Japanese flower arrangement, blending into the bright autumn foliage that covered the hills. Down below, American soldiers moved through the woods, automatic rifles over their shoulders. In the fading afternoon light, their eyes shone brightly out of the masks of green and black paint that covered their faces.
Earlier this month, more than 200 miles north of Tokyo, units of the Japanese and American armies fought mock battles, working together against hypothetical enemies. Orient Shield 89 was only the latest in a series of bilateral exercises aimed at making sure that the military forces of the two Pacific allies will be prepared to fight together.
Back in Washington, discussion of US-Japan defense relations is increasingly dominated by calls for ``burdensharing,'' for Japan to bear more of the costs and tasks of mutual security. Critics such as Sen. John Tower, who reportedly heads the list of candidates for the Bush administration's secretary of defense, express the commonly held view that Japan's contribution falls far short of its capability as the world's second richest nation.
Michael Mansfield, departing American ambassador to Japan, defended the country's defense effort recently. Japanese defense spending, at around $30 billion a year, places it in the ranks of France, West Germany, and Britain. In addition, he pointed out, Japan contributes some 40 percent of the cost of stationing the 50,000 US troops based there.
But in these rugged hills, where the men that must fight the wars practice their profession, ``burdensharing'' takes on a different meaning: infantrymen from the United States carried into simulated combat on the backs of Japanese tanks, and American jets flying missions to support Japanese troops.
Orient Shield annually combines soldiers from the US 25th Division, a light infantry unit based in Hawaii, and units from one of the Ground Self-Defense Force's divisions. The US division is designated as a ``quick-reaction'' force, without tanks and other armored vehicles, who can deploy anywhere rapidly.
``The exercise is a good demonstration to the communist countries that we are ready to defend Japan,'' Maj. Denzaburo Umetsu of the Northeast Army's 6th Division said matter-of-factly.
``We like to exercise with the US side,'' he added. ``Americans have lots of experience in actual combat.''
Army Capt. Thomas Bowe described his Japanese counterparts as ``an average cut of the Japanese force - and it is a superior force.'' Like many American officers who have worked with the Japanese, Captain Bowe admired the Japanese regiment as ``a well-trained outfit.''
The Orient Shield exercises are an opportunity for Japanese and US forces to practice ground-level cooperation, from exchanging combat tactics to learning to use each others equipment. About 2,000 soldiers from each ally are involved in a more than two-week training program, which changes location every year.
``Our unit's doctrine is to fight at night,'' Bowe commented. ``We've been showing the Japanese our techniques.''
But the learning goes both ways. ``A couple of days ago we watched the Japanese emplace at night,'' recounted Cpt. Steve Apland, an artillery officer. ``It was amazing - totally and absolutely quiet.''
The grunts have their own comparisons. ``The chow they have is really great,'' said one GI. In the field, while the Americans were eating cold rations, the Japanese were slurping hot noodles.
Japanese soldiers, said one amazed corporal, are ``highly motivated - their officers say something and they jump.''
Sgt. Yoshio Sasaki, a Japanese tank commander, was startled by the efforts of the Americans to simulate actual combat conditions. ``Americans like to make the exercise as close to reality as possible. We leave more margin for safety.''
In a country as small as Japan, sensitivity to safety is a neccessity. Populated areas are close to training areas such as this one. Indeed in recent weeks American forces have come under heavy criticism for several incidents where firing of weapons in training has endangered civilians. (The commander of a US destroyer was relieved of his post last week after it fired shells close to a Japanese coast guard vessel.)
The ultimate comparison, in this era of US-Japan economic competition, is of technology. Japanese artillery batteries use computers made for civilian markets, developing their own programs to control the direction of fire. The computers are one-fourth the size of those used by the US, though less capable.
Still, Japanese officers feel generally like poor cousins when it comes to defense equipment. ``All their weapons are superior to ours,'' Major Umetsu said. He expressed particular admiration for the American vehicles, the versatile ``Hummer'' which has replaced the jeep and can be transformed into a multiple of uses.
``They might be interested in buying an American car for a change,'' Bowe smiled.