ZAMA, Japan – When Naoko Koh took her first job 40 years ago as a filing clerk at Camp Zama, the American work environment was all new to her.
While she initially struggled to speak in English, Koh said she improved her skills and found her co-workers to be very supportive. She eventually held various personnel-related positions over the years, but never left the installation for another job.
Koh, now the administrative officer at the Directorate of Public Works, said her time on Camp Zama has seemed to have flown by.
“I don’t feel like I’ve been working here for that long,” she said. “It was like yesterday that I started working here, but I’m still enjoying it so far.”
Koh was among more than 180 local employees with 10, 20, 30 and 40 years of service to be honored Friday for their dedication to U.S. Forces Japan during a ceremony at Zama Harmony Hall.
Maj. Gen. Dave Womack, commander of U.S. Army Japan, said it was an honor to recognize the employees for their collective service that represented thousands of years of commitment.
Ever since the longest-serving employees had been working for the U.S. military, Womack said their careers have spanned the tenures of several U.S. presidents and prime ministers in Japan.
Tokyo Disneyland also opened its doors 40 years ago, he added, while Nintendo released its famous “Mario Brothers” arcade game, and Sony introduced the first consumer camcorder.
“There have been many changes in both of our countries, but the one thing that remains consistent is the people,” he said, “so I want to make sure that I thank every single one of you for your incredible service.”
Rie Suetomi, director general of the South Kanto Defense Bureau, also expressed gratitude to the employees, saying that they have performed well for many years in their respective professions.
“I would like to extend my deepest respect to you for your daily hard work and endeavors,” she said. “I would also like to thank members of your family who have provided tremendous support by sharing times of joy and hardship with you through all these years.”
As another employee to serve at least 40 years, Haruhiko Yamagishi, a technical information specialist for the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, represented the award recipients in the ceremony.
“We are very proud to say that we have all given our best efforts in our positions for the past 10, 20, 30 and 40 years,” he said. “We believe our work has contributed to the development of goodwill and friendship between Japan and the United States.”
Throughout the decades, employees have had to overcome a myriad of challenges to ensure missions were completed.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, Koh said personnel duties were demanding due to an increase of actions and documentation, such as handling the status of emergency personnel or employees who could not come to work on post.
“Of course, they are difficult times,” she said. “But, overall, I feel I am so lucky because I really enjoyed each job I had. I worked with good people [and] even on difficult days, they helped me.”
Besides the unique work environment, Koh said Camp Zama has also offered great job security and opportunities for employees.
“If you want another job or want to get promoted, you can challenge [yourself],” she said. “You don’t have to stay in the same position for a long time.”
While Koh sometimes thinks about retiring, she still appreciates the sense of purpose her job provides her and how it continues to motivate her to serve others.
“I feel that many people count on me,” she said. “That’s the reason I stayed here.”