Ten years after the disaster, John Roos, U.S. ambassador to Japan at the time of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, hailed the U.S. military-led Operation Tomodachi relief mission for bringing people closer together in the two countries.

Operation Tomodachi was “a massive humanitarian success” and “a shining example of the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance,” Roos said in an interview ahead of the 10th anniversary of the disaster that struck the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

Roos, 66, was in a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo when the temblor began. He went out into the embassy’s parking lot and, amid aftershocks, informed the U.S. State Department and the White House of the quake.

“We began to see on cellphones pictures of the tsunami,” he remembers. “And shortly after, probably 20 minutes or so in our time in the parking lot, we were informed that there was a nuclear incident occurring” at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

As the day unfolded, two important responsibilities of the ambassador role were on his mind.

“Number one is the health and safety of the Americans,” he said. “The second responsibility … is to strengthen the relationship with our most important partner and ally in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan.”

“Initially, the first thing that came into my mind was how can we help and what can we do in order to really help the Japanese address what was … building up to be the biggest crisis Japan had faced since World War II,” Roos said.

The most challenging aspect of his job at that time was getting real-time information amid the three-pronged crisis of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, he recalled.

“It was a challenge for everyone to get real-time information and accurate information” amid massive amounts of information, disinformation, misinformation and media hype, Roos said. “At one point in time we felt that it might be a nuclear crisis bigger than Chernobyl.”

The Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. plant experienced a triple meltdown. The incident was rated Level 7, the worst level, on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, earning the same grade as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union.

Roos denied there was distrust toward the government, but he said there were times when it was difficult to get necessary information.

The “reservoir of trust” that Japan and the United States had built up over several decades allowed the two nations to get through the “very challenging period,” he stressed.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos offers flowers on Jan. 16, 2012, in an area of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, hit by the March 2011 tsunami. | KYODO
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos offers flowers on Jan. 16, 2012, in an area of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, hit by the March 2011 tsunami. | KYODO

Unlike many other countries, the United States did not move its embassy for safety reasons as the nuclear crisis unfolded. When asked about this, Roos said he and his team always felt that it was vital for them to support the Japanese in any way they could.

“The United States has a special role to play in that regard,” he said. “I’m proud that we stood there, we stood by the Japanese. To this day, I think it was obviously the right decision that we made in that regard.”

The former ambassador described the triple disaster as “a real test” of the bilateral relationship, saying Operation Tomodachi showed an example of how the alliance worked.

“I honestly believe … the relationships between two countries are first and foremost developed and become strong and resilient as a result of the people-to-people connections,” Roos observed.

The disaster, as tragic as it was, provided that opportunity for the two countries to get closer, he said. “And I think that that has continued to resonate, or at least I hope it has continued to resonate over the last 10 years.”

Roos, who has visited disaster-hit areas many times, recalls a boy he met during his first visit to Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

“I walked into an evacuation center. This little boy came up to me and just gave me a hug,” although the boy himself obviously had lost so much, Roos said,

“He just symbolized to me the strength of the Japanese people,” he continued. “You saw things that you had never seen in your life, but it was really those individual encounters that really stuck with me and stick with me to this very day.”

Roos also expressed respect and affection for the people of Tohoku. “I can’t begin to tell you the level of respect, love that the American people had and continue to have for those people that showed such strength, such resilience, in a very difficult time,” he said.

“Nature can destroy human life, it can destroy property, but it could never destroy the human spirit,” he stressed, saying he saw “the best of humanity, of the human spirit, in the Tohoku region.”

“I want (the Tohoku people) to know that we in America are thinking of them, and we’ll continue to think of them, and we wish them all the best,” he added.

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