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LEAP volunteers translate Air Force intent

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brooklyn Golightly
  • 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan— Before becoming a pillar for cultural connection between the U.S. and Japan, Ryu Yamakawa’s music helped him form a connection with others despite not speaking the same language. 

Yamakawa, guitarist for the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific, currently serves as an operational representative for the Pacific Trends, which books performances throughout the region and helps community relations specialists coordinate musical events for Japan.

The concerts provide a chance for U.S. and Japanese communities to listen to music from the Band of the Pacific stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, while strengthening the enduring partnership shared between both nations.

“When I joined the Air Force, I wanted to use my Japanese to help active-duty military members,” said Yamakawa. “I started doing research and taking opportunities to help translate when the band engaged with Japanese music coordinators to build my application and join LEAP.”

The Language Enabled Airman Program is a volunteer program open to active-duty officers and enlisted Airmen serving in most career fields. The program is managed by the USAF Culture and Language Center and Yokota’s chapter is currently 77 members strong and counting, with several Airmen in the application process. 

“I was born here,” said Yamakawa. “My single mother never knew she was going to move to the United States. She only spoke to us in Japanese until we were 18 years old and I went to Japanese school until high school.”

Yamakawa’s mother later married an active-duty Sailor who soon after received an assignment to Seattle, Washington, and moved their family to America for the first time.

“I started playing guitar at 15,” said Yamakawa. “I had a hard time, but I made really nice friends who didn't care if I spoke English or not. They just wanted to play music with me.”

Yamakawa started learning English while playing music with his peers in high school. He continued learning both music and English, expressing a strong desire to use his music and Japanese skills to help active-duty members like his dad communicate with the Japanese population. 

When he met his wife, Yamakawa decided to join the USAF to provide for his family. He started playing guitar in the Air Force band, but wanted to find more ways to honor his Japanese heritage.

“My wife is Japanese, and we have two daughters,” said Yamakawa. “We speak Japanese in my home. I love being in Japan, and communicating with Japanese people feels like home.”

When joining LEAP, Yamakawa stressed the importance of being passionate about the language being pursued. According to this LEAP-er, the willingness to learn and improve your knowledge of jargon and cultural nuance is imperative for effective communication. 

The program capitalizes on the abundance of cultural diversity in the USAF as well as the commitment of highly-vetted Airmen who know the odds and ends of their career fields. It also recognizes and champions how essential those factors are to building and sustaining relationships with U.S. partners and allies.

“As a LEAP scholar, I believe that if we want to have closer relationships with our partner nations, we must speak their language,” said Yamakawa. “We must always care about their culture and learn how to show respect.”

Yamakawa was recently asked to join Operation Resolute Dragon 23, for a Language Intensive Training Event (LITE) as a Japanese and English translator for the Japan Ground Defense Force and U.S. Marine Corps.

LITEs immerse service members in culturally complex settings. Advanced LITEs enhance and sustain LEAP participants’ language skills in an application setting. During an Advanced LITE, participants study alongside partner militaries or facilitate intercultural communication for a mobile training team or intercultural conference. 

After joining the JGSDF and USMC in Operation Resolute Dragon 23, Yamakawa shared that the exercise was one of the greatest challenges he has ever experienced.

Resolute Dragon is an annual exercise the III Marine Expeditionary Force participates in. It is designed to strengthen the defensive capabilities of the U.S.-Japan alliance by demonstrating integrated command and control, targeting, combined arms, and maneuver across multiple domains.

While fluent in both Japanese and English, Yamakawa found himself at a steep learning curve during the exercise. He studied a wide range of terms to help facilitate bilateral communication, from intensive military jargon by each trade to specialized abbreviations from both USMC and JGSDF personnel. 

Although his task was challenging, he says he is looking forward to having similar opportunities.

“My translations had to be very quick and I was fortunate to work with people who had the knowledge to clarify meanings so I could properly communicate their intent,” said Yamakawa. “What we did was not just an exercise, but building and strengthening the relationship between  American and Japanese forces.” 

Becoming a LEAP scholar requires Airmen to demonstrate a level of proficiency in a foreign language specified on the Air Force Strategic Language List, receive an endorsement from their unit commander, and compete for selection via a board process.

When being considered for LEAP, an applicant’s academic history is weighed as well as job performance, existing language proficiency, ability to achieve higher levels of language proficiency, and USAF language requirements.

The Band of the Pacific alone has three of Yokota’s team of LEAP scholars in its ranks and encourages others to join the program to create a stronger, multi-lingual Air Force.

“We know the Air Force has a need for it,” said Senior Master Sgt. Jason Foster, Band of the Pacific senior enlisted leader. “I think it’s always a good thing for a career field to show that we can create and fill new roles to help grow the force.”

USAF LEAP scholars skills support the application of air and space power through interoperability, adversary understanding, and also through strengthening partnerships.

“If we are not able to communicate,” said Yamakawa. “There is no partnership.”