Diplomacy and Disaster: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Looks Back on 3/11

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U.S. Navy / AP

In this Monday, April 4, 2011 photo released by U.S. Navy, Marines with Company G, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, pull a cable from the bulldozer during Operation Tomodachi on Oshima Island, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan.

After a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northeast coast on March 11, 2011, offers of aid poured in from around the world. In a few months, Japan went from being one of the international community’s largest aid donors to one of its biggest recipients. In the end, Japan’s government says it received assistance from nearly 120 countries. In a conversation with TIME in the American Embassy in Tokyo, U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos recalls how the U.S. response to the crisis developed, and what the impact of that effort has been on U.S.-Japan relations.Ambassador John V. Roos: We knew immediately that this was significant. We evacuated and were out in the parking lot of the Embassy. The aftershocks were continuing, so it was clearly a major event.

Our first obligation is to ensure the safety of the Americans, and the Embassy personnel and their families. There’s about 150,000 Americans in Japan. I learned in the parking lot that not only was there an earthquake and tsunami, but there was a nuclear situation developing. In addition to Operation Tomodachi [the U.S. military operation that launched in response to March 11], we triggered our emergency action plan… We had search and rescue teams that came from Fairfax, Virginia, and L.A. County. We had experts across the board for the multidimensional disaster we were facing… The first nuclear experts were on the ground by Monday morning at 2AM.

TIME: How many American personnel were ultimately involved in the response?

It’s hard to calculate. On the military side, around 24,000 military personnel were involved in the actual operation. On the government side, our Embassy grew by 150 or so experts. But they were backed up by hundreds of experts in the inter-agency process, and private industry.

(VIDEO: U.S Volunteers Do Weekend Cleanup in Postdisaster Japan)

Everyone [in Washington] was brought up to speed very quickly, including the White House and the State Department. The President was informed in the middle of his night, and he then had a conversation with [then] Prime Minister Kan on March 11 in Washington. Earlier that evening, I had had a conversation with Japan’s Foreign Minister in which I offered the assistance of the United States, and wanted to begin the coordination of our two governments.

TIME: What was the Foreign Minister’s state of mind at that point?

Everyone was moving straight into action. You had the earthquake, the tsunami, and then this developing nuclear situation. The Japanese were in the lead. We felt it was our role to provide whatever assistance we could to help the Japanese. The substance of all these early conversations was, ‘What can we do to help?’ Everyone was getting their arms around the scope of the issues.

TIME: When did the U.S. decide to set up an 80-kilometer no-go zone for American citizens around the nuclear plant? Did that create friction with the Japanese government after they set up a 20-km evacuation zone?

The 80 kilometers was decided on March 16. Our nuclear experts with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) were constantly analyzing the situation. Ultimately, they made what they have described a conservative [decision]. They were figuring out what they would have done in the U.S. if we were confronted with a similar situation.

We were in consultation with the Japanese government during that period of time — constant consultation. Everyone understood that every country, not just the U.S. and Japan, were trying to make the best judgement they could under the circumstances.

(MORE: A Year On from Fukushima: Japan’s Unquiet People)

I am very proud of the U.S. response during this entire period. These were complex and difficult decisions that were being made. But everything was being made first and foremost with safety in mind. We felt that at each step of the way we gave conservative and good advice to the American citizens… We used Facebook and YouTube. Twitter was also incredibly effective in getting out information to U.S. citizens and Japanese as well.

TIME: You were tweeting a lot.

Well, you’re talking about a period of time where the facts on the ground were changing constantly. There was a lot of concern on what was going to happen. This was a way to really get information out very quickly. And that was very valuable.

TIME: Do you feel like there was a lot of bad information that going out to people?

I cautioned people that there was a lot of information that wasn’t necessarily accurate getting out there. That heightened people’s fears. We were very careful not to put out sensationalized rumors on Twitter.

TIME: What has been the political impact of Operation Tomodachi and the other U.S efforts after March 11?

Operation Tomodachi was obviously very powerful. What the U.S. government did was very powerful. What the American people did was also incredibly powerful. I have traveled all over Japan and been in the [disaster-struck] region many times. Besides the military and financial support, the letters of support from people… the cranes… all of this had a major impact. There have been polls taken since the crisis that show that Japanese people’s feelings about Americans are at an all-time high.

(PHOTOS: Japan One Year Later)

Operation Tomodachi is an example of our [military] alliance working well. It was a humanitarian situation, not a war. But it was a huge crisis, and our militaries worked hand in hand to help address the crisis, with us in the support role. That has had a very positive impact on support for the alliance and the relationship. Everyplace you go in Japan – both the government and private citizens — will thank you for your help as Americans. If there is one thing that came out of that, it’s the deepening of our bonds.

TIME: How has everything that has happened in Japan in the last year affected the States’ own nuclear policy?

I think that process is still ongoing. It’s not just the U.S., but Japan and the international community are going to learn, and have already learned, a lot. Until a few weeks ago, the NRC person who came at the beginning of the crisis has been here… Obviously, in the U.S., the President is committed to nuclear power as a component of our energy future. And there are always ways to improve safety.

VIDEO: A Village Mourns on the Anniversary of Japan’s Earthquake