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Efforts of two individuals bring Okinawan, US communities together

Mari Gregory and Sgt. Maj. Mario Marquez sit in a recording studio as they speak on their radio show.
(U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Mario Marquez, the III Marine Expeditionary Force sergeant major, left, and Mari Gregory speak on their radio show with AFN May 14, 2019, on Plaza Housing. Gregory and Marquez have partnered up since July 2017 to provide time and space for the shared Okinawan community to understand each other and exchange friendship. // Photo by Nika Nashiro)

Reposted from DVIDS

Story by Nika Nashiro

Sharing information, teaching Okinawan and Japanese living etiquette and tips, increasing cultural awareness, and bringing communities together are some of the endeavors Mariko Shigeno Gregory, who goes by Mari Gregory, and Sgt. Maj. Mario Marquez, the III Marine Expeditionary Force sergeant major, have been making. Gregory and Marquez have partnered up since July 2017 to provide time and space for the shared Okinawan community to understand each other and exchange friendship.

--- The Duo ---

Marquez, born in Guadalajara City, Mexico, and raised in Los Angeles, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1989. Brought up in a multicultural environment, Marquez naturally became accustomed to immersing himself in different ways of life. Through his 30 years of service, he had numerous opportunities to live and travel throughout multiple countries. This allowed him to embrace new cultures, traditions and languages and led him to widen his perspectives.

After Marquez was appointed as the III MEF sergeant major, he made sure to implement an initiative focusing on community relationship along with discipline. From his experience living in Okinawa for a total of 15 years, Marquez knew that understanding each other would contribute to making good relationship with the local community.

“We want the local community to know that we’re not just strangers behind the fence,” said Marquez. “We’re human beings. We’re good people, we have families, and we care and have concerns just like anybody else in the world. My job is to make sure that that service members are behaving right and being good examples out in town. With the given factors, I wanted something where we could inform both military and local communities bilingually about American, Japanese and Okinawan culture.”

Gregory was born and raised in Izunokuni City, Shizuoka Prefecture, between an American mother and a Japanese father. Gregory admits that being a biracial in both countries was never easy growing up, but she found strength in her unique background and utilized her bilingual capability to bring two communities together.

“My motivation behind these efforts was simply to make connection between the local and the American communities,” said Gregory who penned “Okinawa Café Journal” which introduces local cafes and cultural tips. “I started the blog with the purpose of wanting to have the Americans to go off base and develop closer relationship with the community.”

--- Radio show ---

One of the ways the pair had been promoting their initiatives was through radio shows. They hosted shows on American Forces Network on Okinawa FM 89.1 for military communities and three shows from Naha City, Uruma City and Nago City radio stations for local listeners covering the island. Through AFN, Marquez and Gregory were able to inform the military community about Japanese and Okinawan traditions, cultures and holidays. With Gregory and Camp Courtney’s community relations specialist’s assistance with interpretation, the team was able to introduce American and U.S. military traditions, cultures and holidays to local listeners.

“Radio has the ability to reach across cultural boundaries,” said Marquez. “It allows audiences to hear human being rather than someone in the uniform behind the microphone.”

The duo kicked off their first radio show with AFN in September 2017. A month later, they made their debut with a local radio station, FM Uruma FM 86.8. They held their show with AFN once a month whereas their shows with local radio stations were held every other month rotating around the island.

“We were trying to be a bridge to make the American population understand more about the Japanese and local cultures so they could have better experience in Okinawa, communicate better with the locals, and be better ambassadors,” said Gregory. “At the same time, we wanted to share our American culture to our local listeners.”

Radio is one of the most impactful tools to connect with grassroots levels. Although radio hosts and guests may be thought of as merely monologuing, if they effectively resonate with listeners, they can create dialogue with their audiences. Tomoko Takagi, a radio personality for FM Yanbaru FM 77.6 in Nago City decided to host Gregory and Marquez on her show because of their innovative ideas.

“I thought their effort in informing the local communities was a wonderful idea,” said Takagi. “I figured this show could become a tool for both local and U.S. communities to communicate with each other.
We had many people messaging us that they wanted to hear more about the military and American culture and traditions. I feel that better relationships can be fostered by widely informing the differences between Okinawa and the U.S. culture and customs. If there is an opportunity to collaborate with Mr. Marquez in the future, I would be happy to work with him.”

--- Individual outreach ---

Aside from teaming up together, both Marquez and Gregory contributed to friendship and cultural exchanges individually. From organizing a Japan-U.S. friendship motorcycle ride to teaming up with a local cafe to start a cooking class for Americans, each of them took part in their own way to bring the circle of friendship closer.

Marquez has been participating in numerous outreach activities. A few of his engagements include collecting and delivering goods for women’s shelters, interacting with students at special needs schools, and partaking in community and beach cleanup efforts around the island. Marquez hopes to continue supporting the bilateral relationship in any way he can.

One of the unique events Marquez and FM Uruma co-sponsored and organized was the Japan-U.S. Friendship Ride in which motorcyclist from around the island would come together for fun and a safe ride through Uruma City. With the collaboration with the local radio station, 70 riders participated in the event, according to Marquez.

“My motivation to organize the friendship ride was to unite the U.S. military and Okinawa residents into an event with what we all had in common – the love of riding our motorcycles of many sorts and sizes,” said Marquez. “I wanted to do something where we could put all of our concerns aside and do something we love.”

Gregory volunteered with women’s shelters, special needs organizations and schools, but one passion she held consistently was interpreting cooking classes for a local cafe in Uruma City, Okinawa, for almost three years. The class was held two to three times a month. The cooking class taught different dish every month including Western food such as tart, pasta, bread, gnocchi, gratin, and Eastern cuisine for example, gyoza and spring rolls.

Cooking can be a way to have cultural exchanges without understanding each other’s language fully. Cooking is something one can learn by simply watching the chef. Gregory’s effort provided opportunities for military community to take a step in immersing themselves in a local neighborhood.

“I am very grateful that Ms. Gregory initiated this cooking class,” said Yukari Niwano, the cooking class instructor and the café chef. “If it wasn’t for her, I would have not had the opportunity to interact with the Americans. I was able to learn about western food culture from the students at the same time.”

Through this cooking class, Makoto Niwano, the owner of the cafe, hopes to open new cooking opportunities where both local and military members can communicate through participating together now that Gregory has left Okinawa. He hopes that through those small talks, it will create relationships that may develop into deeper friendships between locals and the Americans living in Okinawa.

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Marquez and Gregory who grew up and worked in the multicultural environment encourage both communities to learn about one another.

“Life is more exciting if you can live it to the fullest by appreciating different cultures and embracing more people,” said Marquez. “When you are exposed to culture and able to establish relationships with them, you gain trust and confidence.”

A green, tree-filled park with a tall, two-story pagoda in the middle.