CAMP ZAMA, Japan (Nov. 27, 2018) -- The U.S. Army Japan Band took part in the 54th annual Japan Self-Defense Forces Marching Festival Nov. 21 through 23, playing to crowds of thousands at the famed Budokan arena in Tokyo.

This marked the USARJ Band's 38th consecutive year participating in the festival, which included instrumental, song and dance performances from bands and drill teams from U.S., Japanese, French and Singaporean forces.

The USARJ Band commander says their participation in the festival goes toward the Army's mission in Japan to enhance the interoperability and bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and its Pacific allies.

"This is really the epitome of that interaction, through the international language of music," said 1st Sgt. Ryan Knight. "There is no other event like this."

The theme for this year's festival was "Challenge," and the USARJ Band chose to embody that with songs from films featuring underdogs who defy incredible odds to become champions. They took the stage to the iconic opening guitar riff of "Eye of the Tiger" from "Rocky III," with Staff Sgt. Dnard Edwards handling lead vocals. Edwards stayed behind the mic for "Go the Distance" from Disney's "Hercules." And the band concluded by returning to "Rocky," this time with "Gonna Fly Now," the internationally recognized instrumental theme from the first film.

"We thought long and hard and went through several different courses of action on programs for this year," said Knight. "We settled on 'Rocky' because of the iconic nature and the Americana that 'Rocky' brings with it. It was really a dynamic show featuring performances from many of our amazing soloist musicians."

The III Marine Expeditionary Force Band was the other group representing the United States. Their performance featured a tribute to the rock band Queen with a hand-clapping, foot-stomping rendition of "We Will Rock You."

The Singapore Military Band complemented their medley of traditional instrumental songs, both native and Japanese, with a performance featuring dancers in brightly colored outfits. And the Bagad de Lann-Bihoué French Navy Band, whose performance commemorated the 160th anniversary of Japanese and French diplomacy, had the distinction of being the only band to include bagpipe players.

The Nippon Budokan arena, built in 1964, is distinct for its octagonal shape. Budokan has hosted several notable rock acts and musicians in the last 54 years, including the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Cheap Trick.

Spc. Nathan Sheppard, a trumpet player for the USARJ Band and a first-time performer at the JSDF Marching Festival, said it was an "absolute thrill" to play on the same stage as those iconic acts.

"This arena is world-famous and is one of the signature venues to play; it's like Shea Stadium or Madison Square Garden," said Sheppard. "So when I found out I was getting an opportunity to play at 'the' Budokan, it was a dream come true."

The crowd was the largest Sheppard had ever played for since joining the Army, he said. Of the rush of adrenaline he got right before the show as the curtain drew back and he saw the eyes of thousands of people on him, he said, "That's what we live for as musicians, that communication with the audience."

"I think that it's absolutely wonderful to come together with musicians from many different places, showing not only to each other, but also to the world, that we all have so much in common and that we all want many of the same things," said Sheppard. "It's just a great show of friendship and unity across nations."

Knight agreed, saying the different types of music and cultures represented in the event gave it a dynamic quality that showed in both their own performance, as well as their appreciation of their fellow musicians.

"We all bring something a little bit different to the table," said Knight. "We're trying to represent United States Army Japan, we're trying to represent U.S. Army music, and this is a bilateral event so we're hoping that the audience experiences the pleasure of military music and also the difference between the two cultures."