YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Col. Mark Schissler believes a healthy relationship starts on the ground level.

That’s why he’s making local community engagement a top priority at Yokota Air Base. Through participation in various off-base festivals and events, paired with periodic meetings with area officials aimed at addressing local concerns, the 374th Airlift Wing commander hopes to foster friendships that ultimately will fortify the international U.S.-Japanese alliance.

“We’re well-engaged with Japan and other countries nationally,” Schissler said. “At the local level, I think my part is to do local engagement. If I have strong ties with the local governments, that translates well on the national level.

“Engagement equals community relations. It’s in America’s interest to be engaged. That’s why I’d say it’s important.”

And Yokota officials conduct quarterly meetings with the vice mayors of about seven surrounding towns and cities, he added.

The sessions always are held at Yokota, but Schissler hopes they can be staged off base at some point in the future.

“We’re hoping to keep open the communication at that level,” Schissler said. “It’s a great venue to share concerns.

“Noise is always an issue, so we listen to any concerns the towns may have and try to accommodate everyone by adjusting some of our flight operations. That’s how we get along well. It’s a very valuable forum.”

Another key aspect of Schissler’s approach is involving Yokota residents in city and town festivals outside the gates.

Over the past week, Yokota servicemembers took part in summer festivals at a Japan Air Self-Defense Force base, the Yokota Home retirement facility and on the streets of Hamura. On Saturday and Sunday, they were slated to help tote shrines in a parade as part of the Fussa Summer Festival. And 50 people from Yokota will carry portable shrines Aug. 6 at the Fussa Tanabata Festival on the train station’s west side.

“Festival participation is big for us,” Schissler said. “There are a variety of things we do to be present in these towns. They all build good will.”

The base’s Tanabata dancers and first-year Samurai Taiko drum team also have been active this summer, and they’ve become effective ambassadors in Yokota’s effort to build bridges, he said.

At each off-base event, Schissler delivers speeches in Japanese — a gesture that’s not taken lightly by local officials, according to a Fussa City spokesman.

“The mayor (Hisato Nozawa) has said that he highly values the commander actively going off base, interacting with neighboring cities and giving speeches in Japanese,” the spokesman said.

Fussa officials also consider Schissler’s visits a crucial part of maintaining good relations, the spokesman added, and that facilitates cooperation in times of crisis.

“It creates opportunities to exchange opinions frankly,” the spokesman said.

Yokota officials will assume the role of host during a pair of major events this month: the annual Japanese/American Friendship Festival on Aug. 21-22 and a joint concert Aug. 28 by the Pacific Air Forces and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force bands.

Activities on and off the installation typically require significant efforts by volunteers. Yokota officials don’t normally have to look very far, said Capt. David Westover, a 374th Airlift Wing spokesman.

“We offer opportunities, and people come,” he said.

Schissler praised the work of Masao Abe for Yokota’s success in local community engagement. Abe, the chief of community relations for the 374th Airlift Wing, was named the Air Force’s Outstanding Public Affairs Host Nation Employee of the Year in 1999 and 2003.

“Our mission is only successful when we’re fully connected to the community,” Schissler said. “I shouldn’t and won’t ignore that part. I should represent our base in any way I can. Mutual support is a wonderful thing.

“We want to be cordial partners. That starts with having a viable, daily friendship with the people around us. There’s no challenge or problem we can’t get over if we’re on friendly terms.”

— Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

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