Japan Faces 'Tremendous Challenges Ahead'

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Japan is far from back to normal, after an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster devastated the northeastern part of the country a year ago. U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos talks to Steve Inskeep about his latest visit to the hard-hit region of Tohoku.


Japan is still recovering from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that devastated the northeast of the country one year ago. Yet, there may have been one positive consequence - an improvement in relations between the U.S. and Japan. That's the assessment anyway of Ambassador John Roos, who has traveled to the disaster zone several times. And we asked him about his most recent visit.

AMBASSADOR JOHN ROOS: You see incredible progress clearing the debris, starting to get back to work, but there're also thousands of people who are still in temporary housing shelters. It's been a year, and while there's tremendous progress, there's tremendous challenges ahead, as well.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, when you talk about thousands of people still in temporary housing, from one perspective that may be understandable, but from what we read from here that seems to have contributed to a total loss of faith, loss of trust in the Japanese government.

ROOS: Well, I think you have to travel to the region to get an appreciation of the level of devastation. And, yes, I understand that there's frustration in the region by many people. But you can't really underestimate the level of complexity and challenges in rebuilding some of these cities. But if you look at pictures from a year ago and look at pictures now, there's also a tremendous amount of progress that has been made.

INSKEEP: Is there any corner of this country that has not been affected by the disaster in some way?

ROOS: No, I think the entire country has been affected. Prime Minister Kan, who was the prime minister at the time of the crisis, said this was the worst disaster that Japan has faced since World War II.

And, Steve, if I could just add one other thing. Every place I go, people are constantly thanking me as a representative of the American people for what our government did in search and rescue missions, as well as the American people sending millions of dollars. Kids in schools. I can't tell you how much of an impact that has had on the Japanese people and their psyche.

INSKEEP: Do you think this has actually improved U.S.-Japanese relations then this past year?

ROOS: Yes. And just anecdotally, people stopping me wherever I go. And it's not just me. It's every American that comes here. And I would love to see more Americans come here because tourism is down. And I think there's a lot of false information. And I think that one of the things the Japanese people could use most right now is to get as close to business as usual as possible.

INSKEEP: What sort of false information are you talking about?

ROOS: Well, I think there's a fear across the world about the radiation issue from the nuclear plant. And I think the big challenge is to make sure that you don't believe information that is just rumor.

INSKEEP: Is part of the problem that the government itself was revealed not to have said everything that it knew at any given point about the scope of the danger and so now you have foreigners, as well as the Japanese themselves, who do not necessarily trust what the government tells them?

ROOS: Yeah. You know, I've made it a point not to pass judgment. I think there's lessons to be learned, you know. We are all going to learn from the Fukushima crisis, just as we've learned from Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl.

INSKEEP: John Roos is the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. He joined us from Tokyo.

Ambassador, thanks very much.

ROOS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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