Defense Agency chief Gen Nakatani on Sunday climbed Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest peak, along with about 40 U.S. servicemen stationed in Okinawa in an effort to improve relations between Japan and the United States.

Nakatani, a former instructor for an elite ranger unit of the Ground Self-Defense Force, and the U.S. officers, mainly captains and first lieutenants, watched Sunday’s sunrise from the top of the 3,776-meter mountain.

The agency chief stressed the importance of joint physical activities in furthering bilateral trust. “This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Japan-U.S. mutual security arrangement. I want to consider various exchange programs,” Nakatani said.

Capt. Ron Gray from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa said he appreciated Nakatani’s offer to make the joint climb, adding that even in the U.S. there are few people willing to undertake such rigorous physical activity in the company of professionally trained soldiers.

The climb was organized by a private volunteer group, which regularly invites U.S. military personnel to Tokyo and other places in Japan to deepen their knowledge of the country.

The group began organizing climbs of Mount Fuji involving U.S. officers in 1996, following the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawa girl by three U.S. servicemen the previous year.

While Nakatani has participated in the event several times in the past, this year marks the first time a serving Cabinet minister has made the climb, group members said.

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