Ruins of the US Air Force Base in Fuchu, Japan

Mike Grist Haikyo, Military Installations, Tokyo-to

The abandoned US Air Force (USAF) base in Fuchu is a vine-slathered memento from the early days of Japanese/American war and peace, built shortly after World War II and abandoned in the 1980’s. Part of it was cut off and made into a public park, part cut out and transformed into the the still-active nearby Japan Self-Defence Force (SDF) Base, and part left behind, slowly falling into ruin, for nature to claim as her own.

New antenna, old antenna in Fuchu Air Base.

Fuchu was an Air Base vital for re-supply and communications during the Vietnam and Korean Wars. Two giant parabolic dishes once loomed at one end of the runways, looking over a bustling base where the wounded frequently came back hot from war-zones overseas.

Now those huge twin dishes bob like hole-riddled yachts on a sea of green jungle, rusted red and half-eaten by the passing decades. Beneath them roads swim with weeds and trees shot up through the cracks, and barracks buildings glisten with waterfalls of rushes and creepers, windows and doors barely peeping through the shadowy gaps.

Double paraboles.

I’d been to this base before. The first time was in 2004, days before I first left Japan, along with a fellow teacher very early in the morning. I’d heard about the base from local students- some who’d been inside, others who’d heard of people going in and shooting movies then getting ushered out with light warnings by local police.

We left at dawn and walked to the base- through the park and past the current Japan SDF base that both used to be part of the American Base. We hopped a low fence easily and explored – through the long barracks buildings, to the 2 huge rusted-red satellite dishes, climbed up to their tops, in their control stations, all without any real concern of trespassing or being caught. I took photos with my feeble camera phone, none of which I still have, and somehow managed to forget a long-sleeved T-shirt in one of the rooms. I blogged about the voyage in an extremely vague way on my then-blog at Live Journal.

Just 4 of around 11 barracks buildings.

Dishes from Google maps.

The functioning antenna at right, more wrecked buildings in the middle.

Shortly after that, I got into a brief communication with a retired USAF captain who was stationed with the 5th Air Force in Fuchu from 1961-1966. I asked him for some details on the base, and described to him the gloriously overgrown nature of the base as was. He described to me the wonderful nature of the relations the USAF had with the JSDF, and some of his memories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He said there was a new law made called the ‘Cinderella Law’, which meant all military had to be off the streets from midnight to 6am- one supposes to stop them from carousing with the locals. However- since the relationship between the base and the locals was so strong in Fuchu- the law was not enacted there.

I returned the next time in the summer of 2008, in the middle of the day. I was far more cautious, since my research on the web had shown that the base was not actually fully abandoned- the 2 huge parabolic dishes and all of the barracks were, but one large communications antenna (350 feet tall) was still in active use.

I began by walking the circumference of the base, trying to decide if I was foolhardy enough to enter. I walked around the base maybe 3 times, taking photographs from the outside, checking the integrity of the fences, mulling over the possibilities. I hung out in a park for several hours trying to decide if it was worth it. At stake was possible deportation if caught, if not absconsion to prison or some huge fine. I weighed the pros and cons in my head back and forth for a long time, while watching video podcasts about the coming US election, Obama vs. McCain, and taking photos of the Base through the fence.

They’re really huge.

After waiting for some time with one eye on the base’s fence, I saw a car driving on the interior. Not inside the section for the large antenna, which was re-fenced from the abandoned section, but actually inside the abandoned section. I chased the car from outside but failed to determine where it went, or exited. But that mostly decided it for me. If caught within the bounds of the base- I thought the punishment would be severe. Last time I was protected by my ignorance and the fact I was leaving Japan within days.

You can see the tire-tracks here, in low-sections of grass surrounded by overgrown buildings.

This time I wasn’t ignorant, nor did I have any desire to leave. Still, I couldn’t bear to leave without getting inside.

So I went inside.

The same fence I climbed over the last time was still low and accessible. I waited nearby until it got dark, lingering like a burglar casing a mark, already feeling the tension of the hunt. Standing beside the dark fence, peering into the gathering dark glooming around the ivy-wrapped barracks buildings, I strained to hear the slightest indication that there were guards patrolling inside.

As anyone who’s strained to hear something at night knows- there’s lots to hear. Lots of strange clicks, drips, scurrying sounds, and the occasional thump echoed out of the darkness. Each I worried over, wondering what kind of creature clicked, or which thumped. Each could be soldiers, creeping up on me, waiting for me to make the mistake.

At last, it reached the point where I was freezing, and the shame of going home with nothing at all finally overawed my fears of getting caught, and I stepped up to the fence, and did what was necessary.

The old story

In the first version of this post- I was so concerned about this trespassing that I didn’t admit to it at all. Rather I wrote the following-

So I turned around, and walked away.
However- afterwards I searched the net, made another contact, and managed to get hold of some photos from INSIDE the base from an anonymous source. My source described entry by night, feeling constant tension and fear of being caught, climbing the huge parabolic dishes, and finally exiting in a hazy blur.

None of which is true. Probably no-one was fooled anyway, and probably no-one cared, but still, it made me feel that little bit more comfortable at the time.

On to the real story, then, as remembered 3 years later, in Dec 2011.

The real story

Over the fence, and in. Guilty. I ran at once for cover, the nearest of the many long barracks buildings. In the darkness I had to fight my through the entangled ivy and leaves, getting dripped all over by the sodden undergrowth. Just ahead, barely iluminated by the moonlight, something went bang.

I froze, contemplated throwing myself bodily into the morass of vines. Instead I went statue-still, waiting for the US patrolmen to come arrest me. Waiting.

Nothing more. I creep forwards. I see a rusty old door blowing in the wind, occasionally thumping against its buckled frame.

Breathe out, relax, and into shelter.

And so like that.

Once inside, I felt comfortable enough to cautiously use my flashlight. Empty concrete halls, wires and pipes gouged and hanging down from above. Underfoot there were regular holes in the middle of the corridor- some kind of maintenance ducts to the basement- for some reason left dangerously open when the place was shut down.

I shuddered at the thought of a more-cautious-me, one who didn’t turn the flashlight on, and who walked brazenly into one of them. I’d have fallen straight through, probably whacked my hip on the edge, then possibly fallen right through.

Ouch. One of the hazards of haikyo.

I skirted them carefully, and started bobbing in and out of rooms, snapping photos with flash. Empty bedrooms, water-damaged, some with their wooden-frame ceilings coming down, some with hangars still in the closets. Who had stayed here, for how long? What war-zone had he or she returned from? How did it feel to be in such a foreign country, surrounded by men and women who until recently had been sworn enemies.

Mottled walls and rusting hangers.

Roofing rafters visible after the plaster has come down.

Here the rafters themselves have fallen- tumbled by time and rot.

Plaster-strewn stairs.

I felt like I was walking through a plane thick with memories, ghosts, as if I could just listen hard enough, I might be able to hear them.

My heart raced. I moved on.

At times padding down that first long barracks, I thought I heard voices outside, saw lights coming towards me. Had I tripped some silent alarm, and now they were coming for me? Would they think me a terrorist after the existing antenna, and shoot on sight?

I continued on in that mindset. Stepping out of the barracks at the end felt crazy, like I was just asking to be sniped, like taking a deep breath and diving off a sinking boat into the ocean, with no way back and the prospect of a long swim ahead to safety.

The only way out was through.

I entered another barracks, and repeated the long process, entering ad exiting at random, as the whim took me, drawn to see as much as possible. Soon I was thoroughly lost. A few hours passed like that, flying by in adrenaline and excitement as I walked around with all senses pitched to the max, attuned to every little sound around me. Regularly I leaped off the game-trails beaten through the tall grass, into the near-pitch-black cover of overhanging trees bowed down with creeping ivy. I ducked and weaved as though approaching an enemy encampment.

My goal was the great parabolic dishes. I’d climbed them before, and at that time I’d left behind one of my favorite T-shirts, by accident. I wanted to get it back.

At the back of one of the barracks was a forest, and I dived into it, moving by memory, tracking the ghost of my younger self. Like a Blair Witch victim I stumbled around, until at last amongst the dark bamboo thickets I nearly walked into a rusted metal support stanchion. I looked up, and through the foliage above could make out the outline of one of the great curved antenna against the sky.

Wow. Big.

I strafed around it, heading into the command cab next to it, where I’d left my shirt. No sign of it, though. I scanned through the pages of technical specifications, now left lying around like autumn leaves on the floor. In and out of desks, my heart still racing. Soon. Surely somebody would come soon. I had been here 4 years ago, and nothing had changed. If I closed my eyes, I could almost see the person I was then, the dreams I had banked on.

Smashed-off dial of a safe.

Banks of HIGH VOLTAGE gear in the comm hub.

A book filled with tech specs.

Back outside and standing at the foot of the parabolic ladder, heading up through the foliage and into plain sight in the sky, I gulped. Then I stuck my courage to the screwing place, and began the climb.

Up, up. Who knows how rusted this metal is. Swaying. Up.

To the top, and a view over the dead dark base around me. Beyond that, the roads of Fuchu, my old town. Lights and people and memories. No signs of pursuit, no black-hawk helicopters sweeping the grounds with floodlights.

Nobody knew I was here. Nobody cared.

Beneath a red steel sky.

Night-visioned to orange, from one dish to the other.

After that, I could calm down. I was already exhausted from the adrenaline high of the past several hours. It was dark, I was tired, and ready to go home.

I climbed down, and fought my way back through the woods. In a corner near to the station, I climbed over another fence. People might see, but I was coming out, and when coming out I hardly care if I’m seen.

Out. Back on the street, cool wind on my face, legs burning with excitement, filled with a kind of sense of accomplishment that doesn’t really make any sense, if properly examined.

I’d passed some kind of test, perhaps. Perhaps a crazy one, a senseless one, but one that had really put me through the wringer anyway.

Walking away, buying a 100yen orange juice on the way back to the station, I promised myself- “Never again.”

To see me break that promise- take a look at my explore of the abandoned Tachikawa Air Force Base a few years later.

Would you like to see photos from Fuchu Air Base’s heyday? You can see them here.

Thanks to everyone who has commented on this post over the years. Comments are now closed.

However there are many other forums and groups mentioned below where you can reconnect with old colleagues and friends. Best of luck!