SAGAMI GENERAL DEPOT, Japan – Two years ago, a balloon took flight from Tokyo and landed 30 kilometers away inside the warehouse of a U.S. Army unit here. Written on the balloon, in Japanese, were two girls’ names, their future dreams, and the address of a school.
The balloon ended up forging a friendship that culminated in the unit inviting the school to their installation for a daylong gathering earlier this year.
Starting a dialogue
An employee with the 403rd Army Field Support Battalion – Northeast Asia (Forward) at Sagami General Depot found the balloon and brought it to a 403rd Soldier. The Soldier enlisted the help of some of his Japanese employees to translate the balloon. They told him it came from Tokyo Gakugei University Oizumi Elementary.
The Soldier and others in his unit decided to contact the school. Again with the assistance of some Japanese employees, they wrote a letter and initiated a line of communication that was admittedly quicker and less random than a balloon.
The conversation continued back and forth between the school and the 403rd, with the idea to schedule a day for the two to meet in person. Finally, after many postponements and rescheduled dates, a group of students, parents and faculty from Oizumi Elementary visited Sagami General Depot March 30.
The 403rd Soldier, who asked not to be named, said he wanted to reach out to the school in hopes of building a partnership. The inaugural “friendship day” event was meant to grow an alliance and demonstrate to the school the positive relationship the installation hopes to have with the community around them, he said.
“This is the first type of event of this scale we’ve hosted here, and our intent was to show the students who the Army is and what the Army does here,” the Soldier said.
The balloon’s journey
In the fall of 2021, Oizumi Elementary held an event to celebrate its founding. As part of the celebration, the students, working in pairs, wrote their names and aspirations on balloons before releasing about 400 of them to the sky. The balloon that fifth grader Riko Enomoto and sixth grader Nao Kawamura wrote their message on is the one that landed on Sagami Depot.
Riko said she was very surprised when she received a letter from the 403rd and grateful for the encouraging message they gave her to pursue her dream of becoming a pastry chef. She was extremely happy to know that her and her schoolmate’s balloon was the reason for bringing the two groups together.
Riko was nervous at first to meet the Soldiers but said she ended up having a great time because her military hosts were very friendly and approachable. One of the most memorable moments for her from that day was when a Soldier helped her into the seat of a Humvee, she said.
“These Soldiers today were very kind to me,” Riko said. “I realized I only felt nervous because I didn’t know what the Soldiers would be like, but I learned that communication is the first step to get to know someone, even if they are from a different background or culture.”
Nao said she was initially in disbelief that her and Riko’s balloon had made the 30-kilometer journey and was discovered by chance. Like her schoolmate, Nao said she was grateful for the thoughtful letter she received from the Soldiers who encouraged her dream of becoming a doctor.
The 403rd includes parachute riggers, who are at Sagami General Depot on temporary duty from Alaska for an annual mission. As part of the students’ visit, the Soldiers showed them a warehouse where they conduct much of their work. They even let the students walk inside a parachute and take photos.
Kawamura said she is thankful for the rare experience to see Soldiers up close who have such a unique job, and she hopes they will be able to visit her school in the future so that the friendship between the two can continue.
“We didn’t intend to deliver the balloon to the base, but it ended up landing here,” Nao said. “So this was a miracle. The Soldiers here treated us with hospitality, and I am sure this will be a great memory for all of us.”
The Soldier agreed, saying that the chances of a balloon making its way from Tokyo to an Army installation were small, but it happened for a reason.
“I think today was that reason—building the connection between both sides,” the Soldier said on the day of the friendship event. “It actually hit home when I saw [Riko and Nao] at the event together.”
And what happened to the balloon? It is now displayed prominently inside the unit’s headquarters building. Ultimately, the balloon and everything it led to has been an opportunity to give back to the Japanese community for all the hospitality it has shown the U.S. military here, the Soldier said.