For more than 60 years, friendship has blossomed between Japanese women and American military spouses at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan. The Japanese American Friendship Group began when three women gathered for dinner. In the decades since, it has created connections spanning generations.
Almost immediately after Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender in 1945 at NAF Atsugi — a former Imperial Naval base 30 miles south of Tokyo — he began forging ties between Japan and America. Today, near the entrance of the base, you’ll find a six-foot bronze statue of MacArthur, commemorating his leadership in what has become a long-standing alliance between the two countries.
In the years after the war, while prestigious leaders built bridges in the economic, military and political realms on the world’s stage, poignant friendships between Japanese and Americans were also being formed in the area.
The JAFG began when American Sharon Cook, whose spouse was stationed in Japan as a Russian interpreter for the Navy, arrived as a newlywed in 1960. When Cook moved into a house in Yamato, Japan, just outside the NAF Atsugi gates, she met her Japanese neighbors Yoshiko Kitajima and Kaoru Onodera. She suggested they meet weekly to share food and conversation.
During these meetings they held lively conversations about cultural norms and finding intrigue in small differences, such as how Americans make a bed and how much softer their toilet paper was compared to Japanese paper.
Tamae Onodera, daughter of inaugural member Kaoru, who is still a member, remembers how different life was for the Japanese at that time — 15 years after the end of the war.
“We did still did not have any luxuries,” Tamae said. “So, to know ways of young Americans living, looked shiny and attractive. We had to be the happiest Japanese, because military families of women were friends. This is true even now.”
The women remained committed to their weekly exchange and expanded their circle to include Sachiko Kashiwagi, who became the longest-standing member of the JAFG. She met monthly with the group from 1965 until 2019, until her health made it impossible to do so.
Over the years, the group continued to grow through acquaintances and family connections and, all these years later, the connections remain strong. Tamae is still in touch with Sharon Cook’s son, Eric, whom she babysat in the 1960s. Other Japanese members have traveled as far as Hawaii and France to meet up with former American members.
Over time, the group expanded to 20 members, 10 Japanese and 10 Americans. While the Japanese members have remained constant, the Americans have rotated every two to three years as their PCS orders change. As that pattern continues, the age gap between the Japanese and American ladies keeps widening.
At the beginning of the group’s formation, the Japanese women were meeting with peers their own ages. Now, they meet with women whose ages correspond to their grandchildren.
“I made friends who ended up becoming truly like family,” Rachel Morgan, a Navy spouse who participated in the group twice during two separate tours from 2010 to 2012 and again from 2016 to 2019, said.
“There were kind sisters and crazy aunts and gentle mothers and wise grandmothers among the Japanese and American ladies,” she added.
The Japanese spouses give an annual hula lesson, teach origami, card games, kimono dressing, holiday celebrations and share homemade food. The Americans share their traditions like backyard barbecues, pumpkin carving and Thanksgiving dinner.
A highlight to each meeting is the Japanese custom of giving gifts to the hosts. Over the years, the Japanese members have received hundreds of tokens of appreciation and there is a running joke about where they find room to store all of the gifts received. For the American women, these gifts are cherished as tokens of some of their fondest memories of Japan.
Among those memories for Morgan is playing a Japanese card game with a special deck of cards featuring images of warriors, princesses and monks.
“As our farewell gift when an American participant moved away, we received the game. It’s a piece of Japanese culture as well as a fun reminder of a wonderful day of games, laughter and friendship,” she said.
For Christina Gordon, a Navy spouse who was a member from 2017 until 2020, the group’s legacy was an important part of her experience abroad.
“Being a part of JAFG was extremely meaningful, not just because it gave me the opportunity to develop relationships with local Japanese women, but because we became a part of the bigger JAFG story,” she said.