ACCJ 2012 PEOPLE OF THE YEAR
AMBASSADOR JOHN V. ROOS AND MS. SUSAN H. ROOS
In 2012, the ACCJ for the first time honored two people with its Person of the Year award. US Ambassador John V. Roos and Ms. Susan H. Roos each brought unique skills and abilities with them to Japan – and each of them has made significant contributions to the US-Japan relationship in their own right. The ACCJ Journal spoke with Ambassador and Ms. Roos in late December about the honor, and their time in Japan to date.
By Eriko Watanabe
As the sun set into the Pacific Ocean on May 26, 2009, the San Francisco Giants were well on their way to shutting out the Atlanta Braves, 4-0, behind an eight inning, eight-strikeout performance from ace pitcher Tim Lincecum.
Lincecum would go on to win the National League Cy Young Award that year, but rabid Giants fans Susie and John Roos, who were living in northern California, enjoying successful careers as lawyers, and raising two children, would not get to see as many games as they had hoped.
You see, the day after Lincecum’s win against the Braves, US President Barack Obama nominated John Roos to be Ambassador of the United States to Japan. The Ambassador, Ms. Roos and their children arrived in Japan on August 19, 2009, and he presented his credentials to Emperor Akihito the following day.
Roos came to Tokyo with the full confidence of President Obama, who said, “I placed great importance in the selection of who would represent the United States as Ambassador to Japan. And after careful consideration, I made the determination that the person who I thought could best do this is somebody with superb judgment, somebody with an outstanding intellect, somebody who is a very close friend of mine and a close advisor, somebody who has worked both in the private sector with cutting-edge technologies, but also is somebody who has a deep interest in public service. And that’s my friend, John Roos. He is 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. He’s somebody who will be able to advise me directly on issues that may arise and opportunities that may arise in the US-Japanese relationship. He is somebody who is I know going to be working incredibly hard to make sure that he is listening to and understanding the full scope of Japanese concerns.”
Since the President spoke those words nearly four years ago, his confidence has been borne out by the actions of Ambassador Roos during the momentous events – both political and natural – that have taken place in Japan over that time. Roos has worked tirelessly to strengthen the US-Japan relationship, visiting all 47 Japanese prefectures and leading the American response to the terrible disaster of March 11, 2011, as well as co-founding with Ms. Roos the TOMODACHI Initiative, a public-private partnership among the US Embassy, the US-Japan Council in Washington, DC, and dozens of private-sector Japanese and American sponsors and contributors.
Both the Ambassador and Ms. Roos brought with them to Japan interests and experiences from their California careers. As a labor lawyer with her own practice, specializing in the fields of employment discrimination and sexual harassment, Ms. Roos built strong connections with Japanese women’s organizations across the country, speaking publicly at numerous venues and to diverse audiences on the importance of gender equality, work-life balance, and women in the workforce. One newspaper article called her a “champion” for Japanese women.
“During my time here, I’ve met with a variety of Japanese people, ranging from government officials to professionals, working mothers, artists, and everyday citizens,” she says. “What are perceived as ‘women’s issues’ by society – not just in Japan – are not simply women’s issues at all. Economic issues aside, when women make less than men for the same work, or receive unfair treatment at their jobs, or are forced to choose between having a career and having children, these situations have a harmful effect on families and put a strain on society as a whole.
Ms. Roos continues, “Cultural change is a slow process; it has been ongoing in the United States as well as Japan for decades. It’s also something that no one person or organization can do alone. It takes the work of a great many individuals. However, it has to start somewhere, and I believe each of us can contribute to a better society by spreading these issues and sharing this dialogue with others.”
Her interests also include fostering the arts as a way to bridge two very different nations and cultures, and she has made a profound impact on this aspect of the bilateral relationship. Her signature initiative was transforming the “Art in Embassies” program in Japan, in which works of art are displayed at US diplomatic facilities around the world; under her guidance, the Ambassador’s Residence in Tokyo became a tangible exhibition of established and emerging artists with ties to both countries. She actively sought out works of art that would challenge and motivate visitors to explore the depth of the US-Japan relationship, including a unique bingata kimono from an Okinawan artist who spent time in New York City. Moreover, she contributed to the public diplomacy efforts of the US mission by bringing together Japanese and Americans through fashion and music, including events involving American designer Michael Kors and Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii.
Ambassador Roos, too, incorporated his Silicon Valley background into his diplomatic post. Seeking to encourage a much-needed impetus for growth in Japan’s economy, he strongly advocated the development of innovation and entrepreneurship, encouraging young people in every corner of Japan to “dream big” and take risks. Instituting an annual “US Ambassador’s Award” for a Japanese entrepreneur with a risk-embracing spirit, he sought to create mentoring relationships between young innovators and established businesspeople.
Roos also will be remembered for his history-making leadership role in US-Japan relations. On August 6, 2010, he became the first US Ambassador to attend the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony and, two years later, became the first US Ambassador to attend the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Ceremony. These historic visits were not without controversy, as the idea of an American official representative attending the ceremonies was quite sensitive in certain circles on both sides of the Pacific. Roos noted, “I was tremendously honored to attend the ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not only to pay my respects to those who died in World War II, but also to help advance President Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons.”
But the true legacy for both Ambassador and Ms. Roos lies in the way they have worked to strengthen the vital people-to-people ties between Japan and the United States.
Following the tragedies of March 11, 2011, Ambassador Roos led the American mission to support Japan’s response to the multi-dimensional and unprecedented disaster. Twelve days after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the Ambassador and Ms. Roos traveled to Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture to meet with people who had lost loved ones and homes at an elementary school that had been converted into an emergency shelter. Roos called the trip one of the most moving experiences of his life, and remembers being overwhelmed as he listened to people’s stories of survival and loss – but also inspired by the tremendous resilience he saw in the people he met.
Since that first visit, both the Ambassador and Ms. Roos have traveled to the Tohoku region more than a dozen times. On one visit to Rikuzentakata, Roos asked Mayor Futoshi Toba how the United States could continue to help the people of the tsunami-devastated region, and the mayor replied: “You can give hope to the young people.” Moved by the mayor’s words, and determined to create a long-lasting bridge to unite the two countries, Ambassador Roos and Ms. Roos co-founded the TOMODACHI Initiative, designed to connect the young people of Japan with the young people of America, and invest in the next generation of leaders of the bilateral relationship. To date, the TOMODACHI Initiative has raised over $15 million to support more than 25 exchange programs in the fields of education, sports, music, the arts, entrepreneurship, and leadership development. Last year, TOMODACHI sent over 500 young Japanese students to the United States, with plans to increase that number in 2013 and beyond.
To advance the initiative, Ambassador Roos and Ms. Roos enlisted the assistance of a wide range of leaders, athletes, and celebrities. One highlight was the involvement of Lady Gaga, who appeared with the Ambassador at a Tokyo press conference in June 2011 and later auctioned a teacup with her lipstick imprint (for $75,000!) to raise funds for a TOMODACHI arts fellowship. On another notable occasion, TOMODACHI partnered with Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association to completely refurbish a baseball stadium in Ishinomaki that had been damaged in the aftermath of the March 2011 tsunami.
Both Ambassador Roos and Ms. Roos earnestly hope to create a “TOMODACHI Generation” of young people on both sides of the Pacific who are committed to the future of the bilateral relationship. “People tell me that young Japanese aren’t interested in studying overseas, but in my conversations with students throughout Japan, they tell me they’re very, very interested,” Ambassador Roos says. “Those young people represent the future of relations between the United States and Japan.” The tremendous success of the TOMODACHI Initiative thus far suggests that the Ambassador and Ms. Roos have, indeed, laid the foundation for a significantly strengthened US-Japan partnership for the future.
Exactly when this diplomatic “power couple” will finish their tenure in Japan and return to California is a subject on which Ambassador Roos is noncommittal, but he does say, “It has been the honor and the privilege of my life to serve as US Ambassador to Japan, with which the United States has such a strong and important relationship, and to get to know so many wonderful people from all walks of life.”
Ms. Roos adds, “When I arrived in Japan, I was immediately touched by how kind and welcoming people were to me and my family. As time went by and I learned more about the country and its people, I felt drawn further in. Moving to Japan has been a life-changing experience for me. A part of my heart will always be with Japan.”
Photography by Benjamin Parks