US Army Corps of Engineers
Albuquerque District Website

Working on Engineering a World Away

Public Affairs
Published April 12, 2012

When Project Manager Michael Fies joined the Corps in 2000, he told his wife, who is Japanese, that he would keep an eye open for an opportunity to do a tour of duty in Japan.  Seven years later, a position came open in Pacific Ocean Division, Japan District (POJ). 

At the time, Fies was working as a project manager in Albuquerque District’s Planning, Projects and Program Management Division, and he said he was happily employed.  He discussed the opportunity with his wife and family and, after some soul searching, decided to accept the offer for the position in Japan for her and the family.

Fies has been working for POJ for nearly three years and is nearing the end of his tour.  He and his family will return to Albuquerque in late May.

“Being overseas is both rewarding and enlightening,” Fies said.  “Just to experience other cultures and to learn how business is conducted elsewhere makes it worthwhile. I am proud to be able to represent the United States and to share our customs and knowledge. And, I am sure I will incorporate some of the positive techniques I’ve learned into projects when I return.”

As one of four districts in the Corps’ Pacific Ocean Division, POJ began its operations in 1972 but its origins lie amid the destruction left by World War II.  Today, POJ’s missions involve military construction and managing the largest Host Nation funded design and construction program in the world.

According to Fies, there are cultural and personality challenges, as well as different approaches to designing projects in Japan.  Additionally, there are challenges such as incorporating Japanese construction methodology and materials into designs, budgeting with the ever-changing monetary exchange rate, and trying to comply with U.S. and Japanese standards and regulations which are sometimes incompatible with each other.

“In addition to continuous coordination with U.S. stakeholders and Japanese design teams, a lot of time is now being spent on resolving sustainable design issues, given the amount of inconsistencies between U.S. (LEED) and Japanese (CASBEE) requirements,” he said.  “It adds another wrinkle to the design efforts and requires particular attention to the scoping and negotiations of design contracts.” 

Fies said he came to Japan to do whatever he could to help POJ successfully execute its mission and consistently carried a large workload and routinely volunteered to take on challenging projects.  While there, he stepped forward to take on additional duties as Acting Chief and took the training to get Contracting Officer’s Representative certification to help alleviate a shortage of that credential.

“I will come away from Japan very impressed and humbled by the Japanese people’s strong sense of respect and responsibility, love of life and pride in their country, as well as their exceptionally strong work ethic,” said Fies.  “I am happy to have been able to work in Japan, helping the Corps do good work for both the United States and Japan. And, I am fortunate to call many Japanese co-workers ‘friends.’”

Fies added that he has cherished getting to know the Japanese customs and beliefs.

“The Japanese, as a whole, really like Americans and our ‘can-do’ attitudes, although they are sometimes surprised by our directness and seemingly outrageous behavior,” he said.  “They are polite and wonderful to work with, and they are a big factor in the success here.”

While working in Japan, the Fies family lived in a townhouse just over a third of the size of their home in Rio Rancho, N.M.  One of the biggest challenges they faced was learning to drive on the left-hand side of the road.

“Here, the pedestrian definitely has the right of way on all but the major highways,” Fies said. “Most roads are very narrow and do not have sidewalks. People walk and ride bikes in the street. Some stores are literally less than two feet off the road, so you have to contend with shoppers standing on the road or coming in and out of the shops. When driving, you have to be aware of all of this. To compound this, Oba-chans (grandmothers) are notorious for walking or riding their bikes wherever they wish without regard to traffic. So, you always have to look out for them. I used to get sweaty driving around, but now I zip around just like the locals.”

Fies said his wife has made many friends and is taking shamisen lessons (a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument). His son became involved with Aikido (martial arts) and participated in a sumo wrestling event. His daughter danced on the stage at the summer Bon-Odori festivals, played soccer and made some visits to Japanese elementary schools. 

“Both of my kids participated in a soroban (Japanese abacus) club and competed with Japanese kids,” he said.  “As a family, we have loved going to the onsens (hot springs) and all of the historical sites.”

Ultimately, Fies said he has a new appreciation and respect for the Japanese people.

“To see how the Japanese reacted in the days and weeks after the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami is a tremendously valuable lesson for the entire world,” he said.  “There was no rioting, crime, or complaining. The country pulled together as one to help each other without expecting anything in return. It was stunning to see how people formed neat, orderly lines to wait for meager food and water rations, and how recovered belongings and valuables were placed along roads so their owners might reclaim them.”

Although not sure what he’ll be working on when he returns to Albuquerque District, Fies said he is looking forward to switching gears and solving engineering challenges at home.