More than words: Different languages also means different ways of communicating. This Air Force staff sergeant is excelling at the challenge

SSgt Jason Sugimoto conveys partner nation messages to WO Yamazaki at the Pacific Rim in 2016.

SSgt Jason Sugimoto conveys partner nation messages to WO Yamazaki at the Pacific Rim in 2016.

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- If you are a staff sergeant working in food service in the U.S. Air Force, a “by-name” request for your support from the Service’s top non-commissioned officer is notable and rare event — but that’s just what happened to Staff Sgt. Jason Sugimoto, a participant in the Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Language Enabled Airman Program. LEAP is a career-spanning program to sustain, enhance and use the existing language skills of Airmen. The objective of LEAP is to develop cross-culturally competent leaders across all Air Force specialties with working-level foreign language proficiency.

Sugimoto’s language skills have propelled him to new opportunities outside of his career field – including working with former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody. The staff sergeant first met Cody during a Red Flag exercise at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, in 2016. Sugimoto, who is fluent in Japanese, was tasked to translate and facilitate discussions between Cody and Warrant Officer Katsumi Yamazaki, Japan Air Self Defense Force command sergeant major. Like the Air Force’s Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Yamazaki is his Service’s senior enlisted officer, and he provides insight and counsel to the JASDF chief of staff.

Sugimoto said he didn’t really know what to expect when he first learned he would be supporting this high-visibility task, but any apprehension disappeared soon after meeting Yamazaki. “Warrant Officer Yamazaki was very pleased when he heard me speaking Japanese,” Sugimoto said. “My Japanese is very natural, and because I understand the Japanese culture, he felt comfortable and trusted me to translate both what he said, and what was being said to him.”

Just knowing the language wasn’t enough to make the visit successful for Sugimoto, though. It was just as important to understand cultural differences, he said. “It was challenging, because the Japanese are far less direct in their communication. They don’t make a lot of statements outright, and they will take a lot of time, asking questions and building relationships,” Sugimoto said. This contrasted significantly with both typical American communications, especially in the military, and with Cody’s communication style. “Chief Cody’s pretty intense,” Sugimoto said with a laugh. “He’s got so much on his plate. He’s very direct, and he needed the information delivered directly and concisely.”

These two contrasting styles meant Sugimoto had to draw on all his experience and his LEAP training to make sure the most accurate translation was delivered, and delivered in a way that was meaningful to both parties. The visit went off without a hitch, though, and long-lasting professional relationships were made.

It was those relationships that led Cody to make to a personal request for help from Sugimoto in early 2017. Cody’s retirement ceremony was to be held at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, DC, and several high-ranking enlisted members of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces, including Yamazaki, were invited. Knowing Sugimoto’s expertise, and the trust that had been developed between the staff sergeant and Yamazaki, Sugimoto was the natural choice. During this event, Sugimoto worked primarily assisting Yamazaki in meetings with other senior enlisted advisors from within and outside the U.S. military.

Sugimoto credits his ability to “speak like a native speaker,” versus translating “word-for-word,” as what made the difference in garnering this honor. Although Sugimoto grew up in Japan, his language skills have been developed and sharpened since entering LEAP in 2012. The program uses classroom and distance learning coursework, as well as immersive language assignments in the U.S. and abroad, to develop not just language, but cultural competence. Through LEAP, Sugimoto has participated in several of these immersive language events, including participation in various exercises and conferences in Japan and South Korea. He credits LEAP for giving him the opportunity to understand more about the U.S. Air Force, and his role in it.

“The experience and knowledge I’ve gained from being in LEAP is something that people may not experience in their whole careers. It’s changed my perspective, because I’ve been able to see and hear the big picture from some of our most senior leaders,” Sugimoto said. He is quick to point out how LEAP benefits the Air Force, as well as the participants, though.

“With LEAP, you can take a guy like me, who has language skills already, and build them up, give them the experience they need to go out and provide effective translation and communication between our Air Force and other countries. Training people in language from zero takes more time, more money and more patience,” Sugimoto said. “We all want to build more allies, and with LEAP, we’re going to be able to work with any country smoothly, with a minimum of misunderstanding and with real relationship building.”