JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
“Anata no sentai shireikan no namae wa nanidesuka [Who is your squadron commander]?
These are the words Air Force 1st Lt. Sean Crittenden, a C-130J Super Hercules pilot assigned to the 36th Airlift Squadron at Yokota Air Base, Japan, said as he walked into a room belonging to the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force. Out of habit, one of the JASDF members responded in English, unbeknownst to them, Crittenden is fluent in their local language. Since they were used to not having a conversation with a U.S. service member in Japanese it isn’t until Crittenden leaves the room that it hits them--he can speak their language.
Crittenden uses his fluency in Japanese to act as a translator and break down the language barrier.
“I think having that one person that can go in there and ask them simple questions is comforting to them,” Crittenden said. “They don’t have to worry about how they sound when they speak English.”
JASDF Airmen participating in exercise RED FLAG-Alaska 21-2 can give testament to the support Crittenden provides by sharing a common language.
“It makes communication smoother and it helps to make the language barrier less hindering during work,” said Japan Air Self-Defense Force Cpt. Hirofumi Takiguchi, an E-3 Sentry pilot assigned to the 602 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, “Honestly, it makes working together here a whole lot easier, building connections and establishing friendships.”
Originally born in California, Crittenden’s parents, both being Japanese, moved back to Japan to be closer to family before he had his first birthday. As a child, he learned the local language before moving back to the United States at the age of seven.
Up until the age of 12, he visited family in Japan every summer. After these annual visits ended, Crittenden said maintaining fluency became a challenge.
“Over the years it has gotten a little rusty and I’ve gotten a little bit of an accent, you can tell I’m not a native speaker but every week that accent gets knocked off little by little,” Crittenden said.
Crittenden was always introverted, but found solace in his japanese youth.
Overcoming his childhood difficulties , Crittenden worked hard starting his career as a crew chief on the F-22, then eventually becoming an officer through ROTC. Now, as a newly stationed officer at Yokota, Crittenden uses the opportunity to hone his fluency and delve deeper into his native culture. “For me, it’s like coming home. Every single weekend I just go out and explore without those boundaries,” Crittenden said. “I wanna live every single day meeting new people and making those connections.”
Those ambitions clearly show as Crittenden makes it a habit to stop the JASDF office every day.
“Every single morning I tell them good morning, and then when I leave I stop by their office and say you worked hard, get some rest, in their language,” Crittenden said. “You can immediately see their faces brighten because it’s a common saying back in their country.”
Due to his experiences, Crittenden pushes for anyone that’s bi-lingual to maintain their fluency so they can reap all the benefits it can afford them.
“To Airmen who are bilingual, I would say embrace it and keep practicing. Don’t ever let it get rusty because it’ll open so many doors for you. You can make so many cool friends that aren’t from the United States.”