On Tuesday, March 23, 2021, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (Sasakawa USA), as part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, hosted a virtual event titled, “Resiliency & Friendship: Reflections on 3.11.” This event featured Ambassador John Roos, Partner and Co-Founder of Geodesic Capital and U.S. Ambassador to Japan from 2009-2013, Ms. Susie Roos, Partner and CAO at Geodesic Capital, and Ms. Suzanne Basalla, President and CEO of U.S.-Japan Council and Senior Advisor to Ambassador Roos at the U.S. Embassy Tokyo from 2010-2012. The event took place in the form of a virtual fireside chat where each speaker recounted their personal stories of being in Tokyo on March 11, 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred. Amb. Roos, Ms. Roos, and Ms. Basalla reflected on the resulting challenges and successes that brought the United States and Japan closer together in working towards recovery in the Tohoku region.
Attendees included distinguished guests from the Washington D.C. policy community, academia, think tanks, Japan-America Society directors, along with former and current leaders of both the U.S. and Japanese government and military. Ms. Shanti Shoji, Director of Programming at Sasakawa USA, facilitated the fireside chat and moderated the Q&A.
Initial Response to the Earthquake
To begin the event, Ms. Shoji asked the panelists for their initial reaction and response to the events of 3/11. Amb. Roos spoke first. On March 11, when the earthquake occurred, he was at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in a meeting with Ms. Basalla and recalled the sheer strength and length of the tremors. Right after the earthquake, Amb. Roos stated that the Embassy responded quickly to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens while mobilizing the resources of the U.S. government and military to help their Japanese counterparts. Additionally, the Embassy began coordinating the response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Amb. Roos highlighted how important teamwork and strong coordination was between the Embassy, Washington, and Tokyo in the days and months following the disaster. Overall, Amb. Roos remembered the events of 3/11 being very sobering, especially after seeing pictures of the tsunami’s devastation and damage.
Next, Ms. Susie Roos spoke about her initial response to the events of 3/11. On the day of the earthquake, she was at work at the Ambassador’s Residence in the midst of corresponding with a law firm colleague. It was only as the shaking continued, Ms. Roos recalled, that she realized the strength of the earthquake so she went to the backyard of the residence for safety. It was there where a security guard informed her about the Ambassador’s request to join him in the parking lot of the Embassy with fellow staff. Ms. Roos eventually went down to meet and be briefed by Amb. Roos about the situation. Ms. Roos recollected the chaos of that day where people could not get home nor get in contact with their family and children due to stalled traffic and public transportation. As a result, the Ambassador’s Residence became a de-facto shelter with around 30 Embassy staff staying the night because they could not return home.
Lastly, Ms. Basalla recalled her memories of 3/11. She was in a meeting with Amb. Roos at the Embassy at the time earthquake happened. During the continuing tremors, Ms. Basalla noted that she remembered standing under doorways for safety and then gathering in the Embassy parking lot. The Embassy was still trying to set up an alternate command center and Embassy staff were not with their children since it was during the middle of the school day. Additionally, Ms. Basalla’s husband was on a train during the earthquake but she stated that thanks to Japan’s train system with established earthquake preparation and precautions, his train was able to stop safely at a station while the earthquake occurred.
The Communication Challenge
Ms. Shoji then pivoted to ask about the challenges of acquiring and communicating timely and accurate information after the earthquake and tsunami. Amb. Roos responded first by describing the level of difficulty in communication with all of the numerous parties involved in the disaster’s aftermath, especially accounting for time zone differences not limited just to Tokyo and Washington. Stakeholders in the crisis, outside of the Japanese government and the U.S. Department of State, included dozens of different U.S. agencies along with other foreign countries like the Australian, Canadian, and the U.K. governments which met continually with U.S. officials. Amb. Roos also noted that Japanese citizens were looking towards the United States for guidance as conflicting information was rampant. On this topic, Ms. Basalla commented that she remembered frequent meetings with Japanese officials and countless late-night calls with Washington counterparts.
On the topic of communication, Ms. Roos highlighted that there was a system in place to deal with disasters like that of the Great East Japan Earthquake, namely the Disaster Assistance Response Team System deployed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. She praised the speed and efficacy in which resources became available to assist the Embassy, such as the dispatching of approximately 150 additional self-organizing extra staff and experts to Tokyo in a quick time frame after March 11.
Next, Amb. Roos discussed the difficulty of sifting through conflicting information, including information on the Fukushima nuclear crisis. At the onset of the disaster, Amb. Roos highlighted that Washington had wanted to control the narrative of what was happening such as what press releases to publish. Amb. Roos recalled convening at least twice a day with a variety of nuclear regulatory experts, U.S. Department of Energy officials, and even the White House Science and Technology Advisor’s Office. However, in the end, Amb. Roos realized that controlling the narrative out of Washington DC would not work due to the quickly changing facts on the ground. As a result, the Embassy turned towards using Twitter and YouTube for public communication.
Besides working with her husband to help increase clarity and effectiveness in communicating the Embassy’s messages regarding the disaster on the public relations side, Ms. Roos also recounted how she became involved in supporting American citizens during the crisis by facilitating clear communication and updates to the U.S. expatriate community. When advising Amb. Roos, Ms. Basalla credited a risk communications expert from the Centers for Disease and Control who provided sound advice which was emphasizing the importance of remaining calm while also telling what one knows, what one does not know, what one is doing to find out unknown information, and providing timely updates.
Reflections on Visiting Tohoku
Next, Ms. Shoji asked the panelists for their reaction to visiting Tohoku after the earthquake and tsunami. First, for Amb. Roos, the decision of when to go was a challenge. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton agreed with the Ambassador’s decision to not visit immediately and to rely on his “gut instinct” to decide the appropriate time to travel to the Tohoku region. Therefore, Amb. Roos’s first trip was with U.S. Admiral Robert F. Willard after Operation TOMODACHI, a major U.S.-Japan joint effort undertaken following the triple disaster, had launched and U.S. and Japanese forces had cleared Sendai Airport. Upon arrival, Amb. Roos first visited Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture. This trip was unbelievably emotional and he recalled being shaken while witnessing the destruction of whole cities and towns on the ground. Ms. Roos added that the gravity of loss and devastation was so engrained in her that she still remembers the date of her trip, March 23, even now.
For Ms. Basalla, she was unable to make a trip to Tohoku until June since she had been focusing on internal Embassy activities and keeping things moving, particularly on the communications side regarding the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Yet, even a few months later, she emphasized how very surreal it was to visit the hard-hit region. Ms. Basalla recalled the varied distribution of destruction in the spots she visited, with some areas left fairly untouched and others completely gone leaving only piles of debris. Additionally, Ms. Basalla remembered meeting U.S. participants of the JET Program in the Tohoku region and hearing their impactful stories, joining a volunteer group cleaning up debris in hard-hit areas, and meeting officials in Ofunato City and Rikuzentakata City in Iwate Prefecture.
New Lessons About Japan
Turning to new understandings of Japan, Ms. Shoji asked what lessons each panelist took away about Japan or the Japanese people following the Great East Japan Earthquake. First, Amb. Roos reiterated his high praise of the Japanese people’s strength and resilience along with their calmness in confronting the crisis as well as the Japan Self-Defense Force’s recovery efforts. He also recognized the U.S. side, and stated that it was incredible to see U.S. government, U.S. military, and average U.S. citizens actions to help Japan in so many different ways and that it was a clear symbol of the U.S.-Japan alliance at work.
Next, Ms. Basalla stated that the strength and network of people-to-people relationships were most eye-opening. She recollected how one U.S. radiation oncologist, Dr. Norman Coleman, was able to speedily meet with and start working together with his Japanese counterpart because they had already met at previous conferences before. This brought home to Ms. Basalla how important and long-standing these individual U.S.-Japan relationships were even before the March 11 triple disaster. In conclusion, Ms. Basalla stated that she knew that the U.S-Japan security and economic relationship was strong prior to 3/11; however, after the disaster, she saw that more work and effort had to be put forth to build stronger people-to-people relationships in the alliance.
Ms. Roos then shared her own lesson, mirroring Ms. Basalla’s, of the importance of people-to-people relations. On this topic, Ms. Roos shared an example in which U.S. Geological Survey experts came to the Embassy to give staff training about earthquake preparation and response and how they had already built a robust relationship with their Tokyo equivalents. Additionally, Ms. Roos expressed her admiration for high safety protocols and standards in Japan. She noted how her Japanese friends and colleagues in Tokyo stayed put even after the uncertainty regarding potential nuclear contamination after the crisis. Many people’s biggest worry, Ms. Roos stated, was food safety due to the effects of radiation.
Future Advice for U.S.-Japan Crisis Response
Lastly, Ms. Shoji consulted with the panelists about any advice they would give to the respective people in their positions today if another disaster occurred involving the United States and Japan. Amb. Roos recommended following one’s instincts and listening carefully to experts, but to not accept everything at face value. He also underlined how managing the personal and mental care of one’s team is just as important during a crisis. Next, Ms. Basalla advised how imperative it is to include the right voices in the decision-making process. She praised Amb. Roos for bringing in people with contrasting views on key issues during meetings post-3/11. These inclusive meetings allowed everyone to speak and understand why there were disagreements, one reason being that some experts had access to different information. Lastly, Ms. Roos advocated being a sounding board for one’s partner and working towards understanding the anxieties of everyone in the situation including the families, employees, and the expatriate community. She also emphasized being mindful of the fact that everyone hears and responds to things differently; there is a risk to everything and differing thresholds of risk for everyone.
Moderated Q&A with Attendees
Following the fireside chat, Ms. Shoji opened the Q&A. The first question asked how risk management strategy differs today compared to ten years ago in the current age of disinformation. Ms. Roos first brought up the fact that social networking services were very different in 2011 compared to the present; social media was not a fountain of disinformation. Ms. Roos highlighted that after the earthquake and tsunami, Twitter and YouTube were used as avenues for people to get information out speedily between the Embassy and even the U.S. military while circumventing bureaucratic red tape. Ms. Basalla also chimed in that with technological advances, she recommended signing up for government information notices and embassy information when traveling. Ms. Roos agreed and added that the information released by the Embassy is the same regardless of whether it is for the public or embassy employees.
The next question came from Ambassador John Malott, former Director of Japanese Affairs at the U.S. State Department, who asked Amb. Roos to elaborate upon his comment about how Japanese citizens looked to the U.S. government for accurate information after 3/11. Amb. Roos answered that this was because there was a feeling of lack of full trust concerning the Japanese government response among the Japanese people. There was a lot of chaos and criticism, such as when Prime Minister Naoto Kan visited the Fukushima nuclear site. On the other hand, information coming from the U.S. Embassy was perceived as neutral. He stated further that the Embassy felt a special obligation when sending out clear and accurate information on social media because their messages were being read worldwide. Ms. Basalla also commented that the Embassy had to be very mindful when sending out information that differed from the Japanese government.
Following the Q&A portion, the participants offered their closing remarks. Ms. Roos began by stating that helping coordinate the response and supporting the recovery of Japan after March 11 was the first time she had worked together with her husband professionally. She attributed that experience of successfully working together to accomplish goals for five weeks at the Embassy to show her how good of a team they were. Next, Amb. Roos’s stated that he was most proud of the success of Operation TOMODACHI and how that brand was taken to jumpstart the public-private partnership of the TOMODACHI Initiative. He credited Ms. Basalla’s and other TOMODACHI leaders’ impact on the lives of thousands of young people through its networks and programming. Amb. Roos concluded that he was honored to be involved in creating an initiative that survives and thrives even after the tragedy ten years ago. Lastly, Ms. Basalla elaborated upon how her involvement in the recovery efforts following 3/11 ended up changing her own professional career trajectory. After helping establish the TOMODACHI Initiative, she shifted towards working in the non-profit sector at the U.S.-Japan Council. She recognized the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake and her connections in the resulting reconstruction and revitalization efforts in changing her mindset about how she contributed to U.S.-Japan relations.
Sasakawa USA is grateful to Ambassador John Roos, Ms. Susie Roos, and Ms. Suzanne Basalla, the Q&A participants, and attendees for their thoughtful discussion in remembrance of the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The summarized views of the speakers expressed herein are entirely the work of Sasakawa USA and do not represent the official positions of any of the speakers.
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