To serve as the United States ambassador to Japan is obviously not an easy task — not by any stretch of the imagination. That’s the position John Roos was assigned in August 2009 even though he didn’t have previous diplomatic experience or hold a political office.
“I was very surprised when I got the call from the White House, telling me that President (Barack) Obama was interested in having me serve as ambassador. I was not looking to become an ambassador. I always had tremendous respect for the Foreign Service, but I was very happy with my career” as a lawyer, he said.
“It took me only a second to say that is something that I would love to do, because not only it is an honor and the privilege of my life to serve as the U.S. ambassador, but to serve as the ambassador to Japan is just very special, because of the relationship between our two countries. And the fact that the president would ask me to serve in this important position for such an important country was an offer I would never want to refuse.”
In the postwar years, most of the American ambassadors to Japan have been either political heavyweights or career diplomats with long experience in Japanese or East Asian affairs.
Roos, 57, had a 25-year career as a lawyer in Silicon Valley but had little previous connection to Japan, and was an unknown figure in Japan’s diplomatic circles.
In explaining the choice of Roos for ambassador to Tokyo, Obama, who Roos helped back in the 2008 presidential election, said he picked up “somebody with superb judgment, somebody with an outstanding intellect, somebody who is a very close friend of mine and a close adviser, 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.”
Citing his personal connection to Japan, Roos said, “Growing up in California, I obviously knew about our deep connections with the Japanese. As an American, you appreciate the importance of our security alliance, the importance of the economic ties between our two countries, and while I knew of the two bonds between our two people, until I came here, I didn’t really appreciate how deep the people-to-people connections are between the American people and the Japanese people.”
While Japan and the U.S. have maintained a security alliance for decades, the massive presence of U.S. military bases, especially in Okinawa, remains a sensitive issue — especially in recent years as the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has been stymied and the controversial MV-22 Osprey has been deployed to the island.
The ambassador himself faces the brunt of the criticism whenever crimes involving U.S. servicemen are reported, fueling antibase sentiment.
Still, he is confident the relationship between the two countries remains sound.
“I don’t worry about the security relationship and alliance between our two countries. It’s very deep and very strong. Obviously, we have issues that we always need to work through, but the fundamentals are very, very strong.
“I also don’t worry about the economic relationship between our two countries. Again, the partnership there is very deep, very broad and very strong,” Roos said.
“What I do worry is about the people-to-people ties, the ties between our younger generations. If our younger generations don’t know each other, then the bonds (between the two countries) will get weaker, and that is the biggest challenge to our two countries. And we need to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he stressed.
The declining educational exchanges between the two nations is one of his deepest areas of concern, in particular the fall in the number of Japanese studying in U.S. institutions, and vice versa, Roos said.
According to the education ministry, the number of Japanese students studying in the U.S. sank from 46,872 in 1999 to 24,842 in 2009, placing seventh among all countries and well behind such Asian powers as China, India and South Korea.
Noting that studying in Japan was his son’s best experience in life, Roos said that there is a need to tell Japanese youths that studying abroad is good for them — an opportunity to expand and broaden themselves as individuals.
“We just need to make the opportunities for those young people, and to make sure that they understand that they’ll have careers when they return to Japan,” he said.
To this end, the ambassador helped initiate a series of Tomodachi Initiative projects, public-private sector projects developed after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake — and named after the U.S. forces’ Operation Tomodachi — to invest in Japan’s next generation and deepen relations between the two countries.
In one of the programs, 300 students in the Tohoku region were given the opportunity this past summer to take part in three-week seminars on leadership and community service at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Everyone tells me that the younger generation of Japan is inward-looking and isn’t interested in studying overseas, but when I talk to high school and university students in the different prefectures, I find out that there is an incredible interest out there,” he said, adding that there were 2,000 applicants for the 300 spots in the U.C. Berkeley summer program.
Roos says he has set a specific focus on areas of cooperation that include people-to-people connections, and innovation and entrepreneurship.
To push his first agenda, he visited all of of the 47 prefectures, from Okinawa to Hokkaido, after becoming ambassador.
“I wanted to make sure that I didn’t spend all my time in Tokyo. I’m the U.S. ambassador to Japan, not the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo. I thought it was very important to have an understanding of the country as well as to be the representative of the U.S. to people in Japan — to see as much of Japan as possible and to meet as many people as possible,” Roos said.
He met, held conversations, and built relationships with government leaders, businesspeople, media and students in the prefectures. He said this experience has allowed him to hear different viewpoints from different parts of Japanese society.
Roos says that people-to-people ties are something that he has always valued, from the days when he was working as a lawyer in Silicon Valley.
Just prior to his appointment to Tokyo, Roos was chief executive officer at a leading law firm in the U.S. who was involved in cases dealing with technology, life sciences and emerging growth companies.
Roos said that the importance he attached to building people-to-people connections as a lawyer is valid in his current job as a diplomat.
“My career was always about working with people, and understanding issues and problems and helping them to solve those issues and problems. How you deal with people — that’s what diplomacy is all about. So while I’m not a career diplomat, many of the skills I had seemed to directly translate into the diplomatic arena,” he said.
He also said his previous job as a Silicon Valley lawyer “and understanding the importance of technology and emerging growth companies” has helped him “in promoting something that I believe is important to not only Japan’s relationship with the U.S. but the economic strength of Japan — promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.”
“I believe that the increasing entrepreneurship that we are seeing here in Japan will lead to the creation of thousands of jobs, and is important to Japan’s future,” he said.
Roos was born and raised in San Francisco. He went on to Stanford University, and then Stanford Law School, where he earned his juris doctor degree in 1980. He has also been active in public service, serving on the public school board in California from 1991 to 1999.
Although initially he came to Japan with his wife, Susan, who is also a lawyer, and their two children — Lauren, 25, and David, 20 — the children now live in California, where Lauren is a nurse at a children’s hospital in Los Angeles and David is a student at Stanford University.
David attended the American School in Japan in Chofu in Tokyo’s western suburbs for part of his senior year before entering Stanford. Roos said he looks forward to their visits to Tokyo every time they have a holiday.