There is a slice of America in the city of Fussa – just on the western edge of Tokyo. A sprawling compound the size of a small city itself, the US Military’s Yokota Air Base has been a fixture since the late 1940s. Over the years, it has grown and expanded and is now home to about 14,000 military personnel. It’s a self-sustaining community inside guarded walls.
While members of the military frequently go off-base to take in the culture of Tokyo, it’s not often Japanese locals get a chance to go on base to have a taste of real Americana. But, once a year, Yokota opens their gates and hosts their neighbours for the annual Japanese-American Friendship festival. I had the chance to take in this year’s event along with some friends (including two who work on-base), and was in awe of the spectacle.
The turnout for the two-day festival is massive (at least by North American standards) – 200,000 people (mostly Japanese nationals) pass through the gates. Some visitors are airplane or military otaku (they have an all-consuming, geek-like fantacism for the topic), while for many of those who show up the Friendship Festival is really about soaking in American culture – with the Air Base hosts proudly offering classic stars-and-stripes hospitality complete with barbecue, beer and a big party.
BX – the US military’s retail operation delivering creature comforts from America to those living on-base around the globe – was selling their wares to visitors. I saw dozens of Japanese families wrapping up their day leaving the compound with cases of Doritos, Monster Energy Drinks, and even cans of processed nacho cheese – with nary a stroke of Kanji on them. The BX’s chain restaurants – including Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Chili’s – all had long lines at their tents as they gave their Japanese friends get a taste of American pizza, a Whopper or those seemingly world-famous baby back ribs. Other food vendors circled the airstrip with hot dogs, hamburgers, corn dogs, and all other sorts of Americana eats.
Membership clubs and other organizations from the base community set up booths as well – the Boy Scouts sold snow cones, another group had cheesecake. One of our friends who works on-base was part of a group selling apple pie and ice cream – it doesn’t get more American than that.
As night fell and the beer flowed, the music cranked up at a number of small DJ booths scattered through the event. Impromptu dance parties broke out as the Americans and Japanese together tore up the tarmac to the thumping sounds of hip hop and r&b. It re-energized our group after what had been a long, hot, sunny day touring around.
Nearby, pilots dressed in jumpsuits stood with a large transport plane as their backdrop, and gleefully snapped pictures with anyone who wanted one. The photo lines were long – from grandmas to toddlers, to one Japanese woman we watched turn the flirt on really hard with a pilot as she fondled his (rock-hard?) abs through his uniform. The Japanese treated them like rock stars, and they seemed to be enjoying the attention.
As the night went on, more of the base’s residents showed up for the festival, including a group of young guys from the Yokota High School dressed in their football jerseys to help rally visitors to drop by a booth they were sponsoring selling “Hawaiian steaks.”
As a day filled with pizza and bratwurst and beer drew to a close, fireworks lit up the night sky on the other side of the base. The crowd oohed and aahed at the colours in the air. Then – in true Japanese fashion – as the final sparkler faded above head, an instrumental version of “Auld Lang Syne” started to play on the base’s loudspeakers. In Japanese retail culture, the song is the audible cue to shoppers still wandering around a store that it’s time to leave. The thousands who came to visit – including us – started to shuffle back toward the gates.
The crew at Yokota Air Base put on one hell of a party for their neighbours – and you got the sense that the Japanese attendees were glad to be able to spend a day taking it all in. There really is “friendship” between the two groups – and that’s something to celebrate.