When the phone call came in last year that promised hope of a Sqn exchange visit to Japan, little did I expect that it would actually come to fruition. But on Mon 15 Jul I was accompanied by Sqn Ldr Harry Raja (SEngO 3(F) Sqn) and Flt Lt Steve Kemp (junior pilot) to Japan with the task of initiating a Sqn affiliation with the 201st Sqn, Japanese Air Self-Defense Force.

3(F) Sqn’s association with the Japanese is over 86 years old. The Sqn hosted the very first RAF foreign exchange officers both of whom were from Japan with Lieutenant Yoshir Kamei of the Japanese Imperial Navy being a 3(F) Sqn pilot in Oct 1927.

The 201st Sqn is an F15J fighter sqn residing on Chitose Air Base on the island of Hokkaido, North Japan. After a brief overnight stay in Tokyo we were transported to Chitose via a Japanese C1 aircraft (mini-C17) and introduce to our Sqn hosts. Lt Col ‘Zero’ Nakata is the 201st Sqn Cdr and his Sqn is very similar to 3(F) Sqn. He has 30 pilots and 20 aircraft, slightly more than a normal Typhoon sqn, but he only has 30 engineers as rectification tasks are conducted by a combined engineering department. The 201st Sqn trains solely for the Air Defence mission but, in this regard, its programme and training tasks are closely matched to a Typhoon sqn.  The Japanese fighter sqns are also very familiar with QRA duties and the QRA ‘shed’ at Chitose was strikingly similar to ours at Coningsby. However, with daily visitors from China and Russia, our newly found Japanese comrades are significantly busier when sitting on Q!

Whilst looking around the Sqn and trading Sqn briefings was interesting, a flight in an F15J and a tour around the strikingly beautiful north island of Japan was a highlight which will live long in all our memories. The aircraft is old, however, and it has been a long time since I have seen so many dials and gauges! The amount of fuel burnt whilst in reheat is also eye-watering even allowing for the use of ‘lbs’ vice ‘kgs’. Still, the mix of 8000’ mountains and stunning coastal settings makes Hokkaido an impressive setting for an airbase; just like Anglesey?

Away from the work environment, our Japanese colleagues proved to be capable hosts. A formal dinner waited for us on our first evening where we got to know each other and where we got to know a little more about Japanese cuisine. This is not a place for those with an aversion to fish or for those unable to use chopsticks. The second evening saw the visitors and Sqn pilots adjourn to the local Onsen for a traditional ‘hot spring experience’…swimming costumes NOT required! This was followed by another traditional meal in a ‘BBQ’ restaurant where cooking your own food at the table added an obvious novelty factor and then a spot of Karaoke…it’s a Japanese ‘thing’ afterall.

Our final day on Thurs 18 Jul allowed us to visit more of Chitose Airbase and we were lucky enough to see a range of facilities including an impressive rapid re-deployment demonstration by the base Patriot missile battery.  Having completed a formal affiliation ceremony our time to depart came all too quickly and a return to Tokyo and the UK was upon us.

I have described this visit as a ’once in a lifetime’ opportunity. I never thought I’d get the chance to visit Japan and certainly not in a professional capacity. The Japanese are fascinating and incredible hosts. The country has come a long way since the Second World War, a part of their history that weighs heavily on them; hence the fact that they have ‘self-defence forces’ marking a deliberate statement of their non-offensive military. However, the Japanese military is increasingly capable (F35 will replace fast jets fleets soon) and their performance in support of the relief effort after the 2011 tsunami (itself a remarkably significant event in their history) has brought the military and civilian populations closer than ever. I suspect we will see much more of Japan on the international scene soon noting that they have already made modest contributions to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Members of the 201st Sqn will visit RAF Coningsby in Summer 2014 where I hope we can demonstrate the excellence of our own fighter sqns and Typhoon.

PHOTOGRAPH: The Sqn Cdrs and personnel at the official signing of the Sqn Affiliation Memorandum of Understanding