When U.S. Ambassador to Japan John V. Roos arrived in Japan on August 19, 2009, he and his family greeted the press with warm smiles, putting everyone around them at ease. There was no sign of the formality and tense atmosphere that usually surround foreign dignitaries. Perhaps this is because Ambassador Roos grew up in laid-back San Francisco and prior to his appointment as ambassador, he was the chief executive officer at a Silicon Valley law firm.
But despite the Ambassador’s relaxed demeanor, the intensity in his eyes showed that he was eager to make a difference during his tenure as ambassador. In his arrival statement, he said: “I come from Silicon Valley in California, where nothing is impossible to accomplish and the future is now. Japan embodies that same bold spirit. Together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.” From the moment he first set foot on Japanese soil, Ambassador Roos embarked on a mission to deepen people-to-people ties between Japan and the United States.
When Ambassador Roos took up his post, the Japanese political world was on the verge of unprecedented change. Within the first few weeks of his arrival, the Japanese people elected a new government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, ending half a century of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). With his solid leadership and forward-looking attitude, Ambassador Roos played a key role in successfully navigating the U.S.-Japan Alliance through the transition. When power shifted back to the LDP three and a half years later, he steered the U.S.-Japan relationship smoothly through another change of government.
Over the course of his travels to all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, Ambassador Roos has built relationships and established a rich and active dialogue with government leaders, businesspeople, media, and students. One of the first places he visited just weeks after he arrived in Tokyo was the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. He was deeply moved by what he saw there, writing in the guest book: “A visit to Hiroshima is a powerful reminder of the destructiveness of nuclear weapons, and underscores the importance of working together to seek the peace and security of a world without them.” In 2010, he became the first U.S. official ever to attend the commemoration ceremony of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and in 2012 the first U.S. ambassador to attend the commemoration ceremony of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki.
Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, Ambassador Roos helped lead the U.S. mission to support Japan’s response to the disaster. He created a new crisis communications model for the U.S. government by using his Twitter account, which became a trusted source of information for both Americans and Japanese after the March 11 disaster and has attracted over 60,000 followers. After the disaster, he continued to use his Twitter account to communicate with the Japanese public on a wide range of topics, from the U.S.-Japan security alliance to his favorite ramen shops.
In October 2011, citing his tireless and effective leadership after March 11, the Department of State awarded Ambassador Roos the prestigious Sue E. Cobb 2011 Award for Exemplary Diplomatic Service. He was also recognized by the independent public affairs organization, PublicAffairsAsia, with the “Special Gold Standard Award for Public Affairs Excellence” in December 2012. Furthermore, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan named him the “2012 Person of the Year” together with his wife, Susie Roos, for their significant contributions to the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Perhaps Ambassador Roos’s most remarkable accomplishment has been his ongoing effort to reach out to the Japanese people and touch as many lives as possible in order to deepen people-to-people ties between the U.S. and Japan. After the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Ambassador and Ms. Roos traveled to the Tohoku region numerous times to meet with people who had lost their homes and loved ones. In an interview shortly after March 11, he stated: “The people have suffered an enormous tragedy, and the United States hopefully in a small way has helped the people here during this difficult period. I do have to tell you that I have been so moved, as has the President and the American people, by the people in this region, and the resilience of the people.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, the United States military and Japan Self-Defense Forces worked together successfully in Operation Tomodachi to provide immediate humanitarian relief to the Tohoku region. Building upon this cooperation and spirit of friendship, Ambassador Roos launched the TOMODACHI Initiative, a public-private partnership that invests in the next generation of Japanese and American leaders through educational and cultural exchanges as well as entrepreneurship and leadership programs.
In the summer of 2012 alone, support through the TOMODACHI Initiative enabled more than 450 young Japanese students to travel to the U.S. on various TOMODACHI-sponsored exchange programs. Ambassador Roos hopes to build a “TOMODACHI Generation” of young people on both sides of the Pacific who are committed to the future of the bilateral relationship.
The TOMODACHI Initiative has organized events offering opportunities for Japanese youth to interact with prominent Americans such as Lady Gaga, will.i.am, Michael Kors, Cal Ripken, Jr., and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. By providing Japanese young people with a glimpse of the United States through local events and short-term exchange programs, Ambassador Roos hopes to reverse the negative trend of fewer and fewer Japanese students choosing to study in the U.S.
Drawing from his Silicon Valley background and expertise, he has also advocated a heightened appreciation of entrepreneurship and innovation throughout Japan. At a ceremony to present the “U.S. Ambassador’s Award,” which he established as part of a suite of awards for promising Japanese entrepreneurs, Ambassador Roos said: “I believe innovation through entrepreneurship holds the key to future growth and prosperity both in the United States and here in Japan.” He has encouraged young entrepreneurs to “dream big” and “aim global,” saying that the firms with the most potential are those which build connections with global investors, customers, and partners.
When President Obama announced his selection for the Ambassador to Japan in 2009, he described Ambassador Roos as “somebody who I’m confident is going to be able to help to strengthen both the regional and the global relationship between the United States and Japan.” Not only has he fulfilled President Obama’s expectations by deepening ties between the U.S. and Japan, but he has also played a pivotal role in encouraging young people of both nations to venture out across the Pacific to join a new generation of Americans and Japanese that learn from each other, do business with each other, and come to each other’s aid in times of need. The legacy of the “TOMODACHI generation” will live on as these young people grow up to contribute actively to the further development of the Pacific partnership between the United States and Japan.