Robert “Skipp” Orr, former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and a key figure in the U.S.-Japan relationship, died Aug. 12 at the age of 68, friends of the family have said. Further details were not immediately available.
Orr enjoyed a long and distinguished career in business, government and academia. He is credited with opening up Japan’s cell phone market in the 1990s as a Motorola Inc. executive, and he served as president of Boeing Japan Co. from 2002 to 2007. During his time at Boeing, the 787 Dreamliner was developed, with 35% of the components made in Japan. Between 2007 and 2010, he was chairman of the board of the Panasonic Foundation.
He also served as vice chairman of the National Association of Japan-America Societies.
In 2010, then-U.S. President Barack Obama appointed Orr as executive director, with the rank of ambassador, to the Asian Development Bank. Orr had first met Obama as head of Boeing Japan during a visit to Boeing’s Chicago headquarters. The two men became close and Orr was a key fundraiser when Obama ran for president in 2008. Orr served as ADB ambassador until Dec. 31, 2015.
Orr graduated from Florida Atlantic University in 1976 and went on to earn a master’s degree in government from Georgetown University and a doctorate in political science from the University of Tokyo. His interest in government led him to work as a legislative assistant to former Democratic congressman Paul Rodgers in 1976.
While in Washington, he also worked as a staff member for the House Foreign Affairs Asia subcommittee. In 1981, he joined the U.S. Agency for International Development, working on Asian issues.
Between 1985 and 1993, Orr was a political science professor and director of the Institute of Pacific Rim Studies at Temple University Japan. He also ran the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies and the Stanford Center for Technology and Innovation at the Stanford Japan center in Kyoto for two years.
In 1991, Orr’s book “The Emergence of Japan’s Foreign Aid Power” won the Ohira Prize for best book on the Asia-Pacific region.
During his career, Orr played senior leadership roles in a number of other organizations, including the Council of American Ambassadors and the Pacific Forum.
On Nov. 3, 2018, the Japanese government recognized Orr’s contributions, conferring upon him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette. The presentation ceremony took place on June 4, 2019, at the residence of the Japanese ambassador to the United States.
Glen S. Fukushima, a friend of Orr’s for nearly 40 years and a former colleague at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan from when Fukushima was president in the 1990s and Orr was a vice president, expressed his sorrow at Orr's death.
"Skipp and I shared many interests — including Japan, U.S.-Japan relations, politics, business and academia — and we had great fun sharing experiences and swapping stories since the 1980s," he said. "I will really miss his great friendship."
Jim Foster, a former economic counselor and later political minister at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo during the 1990s, recalled Orr’s work to open up Japan’s cell phone market.
“As Motorola’s representative in Japan, Skipp was at the center of the 1994 negotiations to open Japan’s cellular phone market to foreign competition," he said. "It was a time of great tension in the U.S.-Japan relationship. But Skipp as always was looking for solutions, not conflict, and worked skillfully behind the scenes to bring the two sides together.
"The result was an agreement that not only offered new opportunities for U.S. companies but also was a catalyst for the rapid expansion of Japan’s cellular infrastructure.
“One year later, in January 1995, when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck, mobile technologies proved their value in supporting government and private relief efforts in the early moments of the disaster and throughout the reconstruction effort," Foster said. "In the immediate aftermath of the quake, Skipp traveled from Tokyo to the Kansai area, sharing his expertise and providing Motorola equipment to support the rescue crews searching for survivors.”
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