Military Spouses in Japan Find Their Footing in a New Culture Through the USO

By Fernanda Schroeder

As the sun shined in the sky without a cloud in sight, the magic and charm of a cross-cultural connection experience was about to begin. The Women’s Cultural Exchange Event was starting at USO Yokota just outside of Tokyo, Japan.

This event, which was a collaborative effort between USO Yokota and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF), was filled with the promising beauty of friendship between female service members and military spouses from Japan and the United States. The anticipation was evident as around 50 attendees – including myself - gathered, each with our own stories, backgrounds and military experiences. As we stepped into the USO Center on that sunny Saturday, we were filled with excitement and curiosity. We were attending an event at the USO that was the first of its kind at this base, and we were looking forward to what was to come of a day filled with learning, laughter and cultural exchange.

The event kicked off on a delicious note, with a traditional American breakfast that set the stage for a journey of cultural exploration. The Chief Warrant Officer and the President of the SNCO Association of Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) made brief introductions and spoke about the significance of this event in its ability to support – as well as celebrate – both Japanese and American female service members and military spouses. The introduction set the stage for an event that would create lasting memories.

American and Japanese women donned traditional Japanese garments and shared their military experiences during the event. | Photo credit USO Photo

When it was time for the activities and connections to take place, members of JGSDF took the lead, dressing me and the other American women in the graceful dress of the yukata – unlined summer kimonos. These beautiful colorful garments, vibrant with history and tradition, were more than just clothes – they were a spark for igniting conversation and fostering connection. We were also taught the delicate art of crafting Japanese hairpins.

The dressing room was full of laughter as I bonded with two American service members stationed at Yokota. Together, we selected our kimonos and Obi belts, guided by the skilled hands of the Shihan Kimono Teacher. We all navigated the art of walking with smaller steps, an unexpected experience that brought a sense of expectation and femininity. I was amazed at the variety of ways the Shihan teacher tied our Bunko bows sparking conversations and many compliments.

As a military spouse and member of the USO family, I had spent over a year in Japan appreciating its unique culture, including the stunning elegance of the Kimono while also being a little intimidated by its elaborate design and delicate Japanese fabric. On this day, this corner of Japanese culture was not only less intimidating, but also a fascinating and fun window into the host country I am stationed at.

Intercultural events such as these, designed for military spouses and service members stationed far from home, serve as a reminder that the USO continues to follow the people who serve no matter where their next stop is on their military journey. Thanks to the support of the American people, the USO can continue to find unique ways to make these military members feel welcome and connected to their new community, this time through sharing personal and military stories from both American and Japanese perspectives.

Photo credit USO Photo

Americans and Japanese women pose wearing the yukata during a cultural exchange at USO Yokota.

When it was time for the Japanese women to teach us how to make Japanese hairpins, a delicate art that demanded patience and care, I found it inspiring to see how, through the folding of fabric and the careful placement of the petals, we were creating a bond of understanding and respect. That is, the understanding of what it’s like to live a life of service, whether that be in or out of uniform, as a service member or military spouse, as an American or Japanese citizen.

We wrapped up the event with the Japanese female service members enjoying traditional American sandwiches and pizza, as well as the American chocolate chip cookie (which is very rare to find in Japan). This final exchange of culture proved that for service members and military spouses in new countries and environments, a connection can always be made no matter the language or nationality barrier.

As a military spouse, adapting to life in Japan is more challenging than previous overseas locations. The language barrier is difficult to maneuver, in part due to the multiple alphabets, as well as for the fact that English speakers are not as common as in Europe, where other military families are stationed.

There are also many cultural differences between the United States and Japan. People in Japan follow unspoken norms of their society, which is a beautiful culture built on respect. There is a structure and order that military members and their families must learn to adapt to without guidelines or a handbook.

Every aspect of life in Japan has been different than what you would traditionally find in the United States. As one of the many military members living in Japan, I have learned to navigate the structure that is set in place. However, many of us do not often get the opportunity to engage with the local Japanese community.

That is why the cultural exchange event hosted at the USO was significant and a one-of-a-kind event that really bridged the gap between these two communities. It was a unique opportunity that allowed military members to better adjust to our current home of Japan, as well as an opportunity for us to reach out to the local Japanese people and forge a connection. With around 50 women participating, the event was a definite success, setting the foundation for future gatherings and collaborations between the host nations’ military and American service members. Natalie Rowland, USO Japan area director, accepted an award on behalf of USO Japan to commemorate this first event. JGSDF and JASDF were thrilled to be able to support the beginning of a wonderful collaboration with the USO and American military community members.

To commemorate this first event, Natalie Rowland, USO Japan area director, accepted an award on behalf of USO Japan. | Photo credit USO Photo

As this partnership continues to expand and flourish, the Women’s Cultural Exchange Event will stand as an example of how shared experiences can inspire global connections and encourage a ripple of mutual understanding.

And crucially, programs like these show how USO Centers serve as a home away from home for our service members and military family members – especially when their service takes them overseas. Being in a new country, far from loved ones and everything familiar, can be disorienting and isolating. That is why it is crucial to provide supportive programs that not only keep these people who serve connected to home, but also help them thrive in whatever location their military service takes them.

No matter where they are in the world, the USO supports those who serve every step along the way.

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