USJC President & CEO Suzanne Basalla Reflects on 3.11

This is a series in which USJC President & CEO Suzanne Basalla shares her thoughts directly with the USJC community.

Last night, USJC convened leaders in our community to remember the tragic events of 3.11, to reconnect with one another, to reflect on how we responded and to recommit ourselves to building a better future together. Preparing for and participating in the commemoration has allowed me to do all these — remember, reconnect, reflect and recommit — at the most personal level. It is no exaggeration to say that 3.11 changed the trajectory of my life and is the reason I am leading USJC today. 

Embassy Response: Operation Tomodachi and Bilateral Assistance for Fukushima

Above: Ambassador Roos, Suzanne Basalla and members of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo gather outside following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.

On March 11, 2011, I was in a meeting with then-Ambassador John Roos in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. We’d been working together for the past year, and among my responsibilities as his Senior Advisor was to help him advance his agenda as President Barack Obama’s appointee. 

On the afternoon of March 11, as we stood in opposite door frames riding out the terrifying and prolonged earthquake, I watched everything swaying and realized that Ambassador Roos’ responsibilities were suddenly so much more enormous than they had been moments before. 

As the consequences of the devastating tsunami, and then the nuclear accident at Fukushima became apparent, I realized what Japan was facing was far beyond what could have been envisioned in any earthquake-response scenario, regardless of how comprehensive. Addressing the cascading crises while managing the dual goals of caring for the safety of the many Americans in Japan, as well as managing the U.S.-Japan relationship, would require innovation and resources at an unprecedented scale. 

What resulted in the days that followed was a remarkable combination of the U.S. government doing good, acting quickly and making a difference to assist the Japanese government and people. The sprawling “Country Team” in the Embassy coalesced immediately, with each member playing a unique role. They were supplemented by teams throughout the U.S. government to provide 24/7 support, with the U.S. Agency for International Development sending in a Disaster Assistance Response Team to coordinate the efforts. American military forces in Japan, in the region, and eventually directly from the United States surged into the disaster region to assist in rescue, and then recovery operations alongside Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. 

My job was to organize the flow of information and access of expertise to the Ambassador to support the best decisions possible, bridging the massive activity under the joint U.S.-Japan military mission, “Operation Tomodachi,” and the overall U.S. response managed out of the Embassy. As part of the close circle around the Ambassador, I witnessed the pressure he was under, and felt the deepest appreciation for his leadership during this crisis. Very few people will understand the decisive ways Ambassador Roos shaped the course of events during those initial days, and how easily different outcomes could have occurred — and damaged the U.S.-Japan relationship —  without his personal involvement.

Over time, my responsibilities shifted to supporting the sustained bilateral assistance to Japan, especially related to the nuclear crisis. In this phase, I worked closely with Commander Spencer Abbot, who was in Japan as a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)/Hitachi Fellow, and later published an article about the lessons from our collaboration. Just as importantly, he introduced us to his then-fiancée, Laura Winthrop, also on a CFR/Hitachi Fellowship, who has been my fellow traveller on the U.S.-Japan journey ever since and is today our Executive Vice President at USJC.

Long-Term Recovery and TOMODACHI Initiative

Above: TOMODACHI participants in 2014. Today, more than 9,000 young people have participated in the TOMODACHI Initiative.

As the U.S. military understandably returned to its traditional missions, Ambassador Roos recognized that we needed a long-term effort that would match the long-term recovery required in Tohoku, and that would rise from the collective contributions of civil society, businesses, and the many American people who wanted to support the region. He had been impressed by Irene Hirano Inouye, then-President of USJC, especially given her early and impactful response and fundraising in the aftermath of the triple disaster. He asked Irene to partner with the Embassy on this new phase of long-term recovery, and together they developed what would become the innovative TOMODACHI Initiative, to inspire young people in Tohoku through unique exchange opportunities with the United States.  

I myself didn’t visit the devastated communities until June 2011, on a trip with the Ambassador and his wife, and several others. From this trip came many of the inspirations that were embedded into the TOMODACHI Initiative. The TOMODACHI story has been told many times, and we are proud that since its inception more than 9,000 students have participated in over 300 programs. The U.S. Embassy and USJC have led this impressive public-private partnership with support from the Government of Japan, but it’s been possible only because of the many generous sponsors, the hundreds of implementing partners and volunteers, and of course the thousands of young people who participated. Early on, we envisioned a movement that would generate a “TOMODACHI Generation” of young people committed to the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Ten years later, I believe we have achieved this and have created a sustainable program to empower the next generation of leaders. The TOMODACHI alumni stories shared last night in our program were just two of the many moving stories of young people who have been empowered to give back to their communities and to contribute to U.S.-Japan relations. I also treasure knowing that the TOMODACHI experience was part of the healing process that gave hope and offered new possibilities to some of the young people who were utterly devastated by the losses and destruction of 3.11. When I see the students we worked with ten years ago now starting their own families, or making their way as young professionals, my heart feels full of gratitude to have helped play a small role in that journey.

People-to-People Connections as the Foundation

(L-R) Irene Hirano Inouye, Ambassador John Roos, Susan Roos, Suzanne Basalla and Laura Winthrop Abbot

The joint response to the Great East Japan Earthquake introduced me to the power of people-to-people connections. When I look back at Operation Tomodachi, I think of the American military members who partnered with their Japanese counterparts, with whom they had already been working and living alongside as neighbors. The ~150 additional support staff at the Embassy brought their personal relationships and experiences with them — whether they were diplomats with previous service in Japan, JET alumni, or scientists who had collaborated with Japanese peers in the past. These personal connections powered the response’s effectiveness. Soon we saw an outpouring from companies, grassroots organizations, sister cities, the Japanese American community, celebrities and professional organizations.  

While my focus had been on the government and political leadership, for the first time I understood the importance of investing in the foundation of the bilateral relationship: the people-to-people ties, especially among the next generation. This insight so profoundly changed my view of the U.S.-Japan alliance, that I made the decision in 2012 to leave the government, and to commit myself to cultivating people-to-people relationships through the organization that I saw as having the greatest potential to do that — the U.S.-Japan Council. I worked directly under Irene’s leadership, learning from her for five years and eventually joining the Toyota Research Institute. Today I am grateful to be her successor at USJC but I am deeply sorry she is not with us to mark this occasion. I also think of many others we have lost in the last decade and who have been instrumental to the growth of USJC. I know that they would be proud of what we’ve accomplished together since that unforgettable day in March 2011.

Thank you for allowing me to share my reflections on this important day. I hope you’ll take the time to share your memories with me as well.

Thank you for joining us in last night’s commemoration. The Council extends special thanks to the partner organizations who helped make the event possible. The recording will be available for viewing here shortly.