AIBANO TRAINING AREA, Japan -- U.S. Army Soldiers and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members stood shoulder to shoulder to kick off Orient Shield 2016, Sept. 11, at Aibano Training Area, Japan.

While much of the exercise revolves around trading military best practices and tactical planning and coordination, the overarching theme is cultural exchange.

"Mutual understanding is the most important and basic factor when conducting bilateral operations and this bilateral exercise," said Lt. Gen. Ryoji Sunami, the commanding general of 3rd Division, Middle Army, JGSDF.

To facilitate that understanding, evening activities in the Friendship Hall on Aibano introduce U.S. Soldiers to various local customs and activities, from origami folding to group games. At the same time, Japanese and Americans were able to mingle. Also, trips to the surrounding towns and cities let U.S. service members experience Japanese culture firsthand.

The understanding generated by the cultural exchange only strengthens the relationship between the two countries.

"The world continues to be a complex and chaotic place," said Maj. Gen. James F. Pasquarette, the commanding general of U.S. Army-Japan. "The fact that Orient Shield is taking place right now in Japan highlights the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance in the security of this region."

Orient Shield first occurred in 1985 and is an annual, bilateral, tactical field training exercise cohosted by the JGSDF and the U.S. Army Pacific Command. OS 16 is the 31st iteration of the Japan-based exercise series.

The Orient Shield venue rotates among the five JGSDF regional armies. OS 16 is hosted by 3rd Division, Middle Army, and the primary American unit participating is the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division out of Hawaii.

Approximately 1,600 U.S. and JGSDF personnel are taking part this year.

"This exercise is a tangible sign of the strength of the security alliance between the governments of Japan and the United States," Pasquarette said.