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AEDC team member reflects upon Japanese heritage

  • Published
  • By Jill Pickett
  • AEDC Public Affairs

From the enlisted to the officer ranks then on to the contractor workforce, fourth-generation Japanese American Steve Sugiyama’s career has been tied to the Air Force.

Sugiyama works for the Technical Management Advisory Services, or TMAS, contractor for Arnold Engineering Development Complex as a lead engineer with the 719th Test Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Sugiyama agreed to share about his cultural background.

“I’ve truly enjoyed my time in the military, as well as my time as a contractor supporting the military, and I must honestly say that I always felt welcomed and recognized as a contributing member of the Air Force and Axient [TMAS contractor] regardless of my heritage and background,” Sugiyama said.  “Although we refer to ourselves as Japanese American, I consider myself an American of Japanese descent.”

Sugiyama grew up in southern California, where his parents met after resettling when they were released from relocation centers.

Following Pearl Harbor and during World War II, the U.S. government held captive more than 110,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in what were called ‘relocation centers,’ simply for being of Japanese descent. These centers were remote, military-style camps.

Sugiyama’s great grandparents, first-generation Japanese Americans, and grandparents were held at Manzanar in California and Heart Mountain in Wyoming. His mother was born in one camp and his father the other camp.

His family maintained Japanese traditions as they worked to make a life for themselves in east Los Angeles after release from the camps.

“I attended an all-Japanese Catholic school in downtown Los Angeles near what is now referred to as ‘Little Tokyo.’ Throughout my early years, I was raised in a culture very heavily influenced by martial arts and Japanese traditions. To this day, multiple generations of our family return to southern California each year to celebrate ‘Shogatsu,’ the Japanese New Year, and our family continues that tradition, and others, in our home when we cannot make it back to California.”

Sugiyama credits the influence of martial arts for teaching him, “the importance of humility, sacrifice, self-discipline, loyalty, honor and service to others,” attributes that made the Air Force a “perfect fit” for him.

“As a fourth-generation Japanese American, I had a desire to expand beyond our cultural norms,” he said. “Also, as a young child, I recall listening to my grandfather’s friends, second-generation Japanese Americans, who served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, an all-Japanese unit that was distinguished as the most decorated unit in World War II.”

He also appreciated the opportunities it afforded him to travel and experience the culture of places such as Hawaii, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Guam.

Sugiyama enlisted in 1985 then transferred to the Air National Guard in 1989. While attending college, he joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and earned his commission as a second lieutenant in 1992. He retired as a colonel in 2017 and joined the contractor workforce.