The nomination Thursday of a virtually unknown lawyer as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan was greeted with more concern than optimism by experts and the government.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura welcomed the nomination of John Roos, calling it “proof that the Obama administration considers the Japan-U.S. alliance important.”
Kawamura brushed off concern that Roos lacks diplomatic experience, saying there are specialists to support the ambassador, whoever he or she is. Instead, the top government spokesman said Japan is counting on the strong personal ties between Roos and President Barack Obama.
“We harbor expectations that Roos will have a hotline connection to the president to deal with major issues,” Kawamura said.
But many, including some Foreign Ministry officials, acknowledged they didn’t know anything about Roos until the media began reporting that the California lawyer was the probable nominee.
One ministry official said he remembered seeing Roos’ name on a list of possible ambassadors, but that was as far as his knowledge went.
Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, a professor of international relations at Toyo University, said the nomination is a “sign of Japan passing,” and that Roos appears to lack diplomatic experience and is unlikely to be deeply knowledgeable about the Japan-U.S. relationship.
Nishikawa contrasted the nomination with that of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as the U.S. ambassador to China, who was presented to the media by Obama himself earlier this month.
Huntsman, who speaks fluent Mandarin, “is a politician of presidential candidate caliber,” Nishikawa said, adding that Washington clearly wasn’t as interested in filling the Tokyo post.
While Roos may be good at raising funds for a presidential campaign, his diplomatic ability and knowledge of Asia remain unclear. The previous ambassador to Japan, Thomas Schieffer, may not have had extensive experience in politics, but he did boast a keen knowledge of the Asia-Pacific region after serving as ambassador to Australia prior to his stint in Japan.
If confirmed by the Senate, Roos will be filling the shoes of some major political figures, like former Vice President Walter Mondale, former White House chief of staff Howard Baker and former Sen. Mike Mansfield.
Just a few weeks ago, the appointment of Joseph Nye, a former assistant secretary of defense, as ambassador to Japan looked like a sure bet, since the Harvard professor is a specialist on the Japan-U.S. security alliance and sees the relationship as the cornerstone for peace and stability in Asia.
The Japanese media have reacted to the Roos nomination by calling it a “ronkokosho,” a reward post given by Obama for his support during the presidential campaign.
Toyo University’s Nishikawa said Japan should get over the shock fast and ask not what Roos will do for Japan, but think about what Japan can get out of Washington through the new ambassador.
“This really comes down to the government’s diplomatic capabilities, and how they can make best of the personal connection Roos reportedly has with President Obama,” Nishikawa said.