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U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Tokyo Japan, on Tuesday, September 18, 2012. (LiPo Ching/Staff)

TOKYO -- Just about everywhere he travels in this country, U.S. Ambassador John Roos is asked about the ingredients that make Silicon Valley, well, Silicon Valley.

Roos, who as former CEO of the law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati had a front-row view of the birth of numerous Silicon Valley startups, has found himself giving impromptu seminars on the corporate culture along Highway 101 -- and what Japan can do to revive its entrepreneurial spirit. Roos, appointed ambassador to Japan by President Barack Obama in 2009, sat down in the library of his residence recently with this newspaper to talk about Japan's resurgent entrepreneurial culture since the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the country on March 11, 2011. Here is an edited version of the conversation.

Q: Traditionally, Japanese have shunned careers in startups for big corporations. That is changing?

A: As I traveled around Japan, there was a lot of interest in what was going on in Silicon Valley and entrepreneurship -- what the formula is for Silicon Valley's success. Since (the earthquake), I think that has stepped up considerably. It's all anecdotal at this stage. I have not seen any statistics on anything. But I have seen a number of people in different settings comment to me about the increased interest in entrepreneurship.

 

Q: What challenges does Japan face in trying to jump-start its startup culture?


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A: Japan is a well-educated, technological society. It is a free society, protects intellectual property. It is the third biggest economy in the world. It has tremendous assets going for it. In my judgment, one of its biggest challenges is there has been the lack of role models and the risk-averse nature of the society. But that is changing. There is an increasing awareness that in order to maintain the economic strengths of the country, it needs to think globally. It needs a vibrant entrepreneurial climate. People are looking to the future in that way. Keep in mind, Japan historically has been very entrepreneurial. So it's not something that is totally new in Japan.

 

Q: Why is it important for the United States to see a resurgent tech industry in Japan?

A: We have a very important, critical, strategic alliance with Japan. As President Obama says, it's the cornerstone of our strategic policy in this region of the world. So it's very important to have an economically strong Japan, and I believe a component of that is a vibrant entrepreneurial environment.

 

Q: Can you talk about the Tomodachi Initiative?

A: The Tomodachi Initiative was born out of the crisis. Immediately after (the earthquake), we responded in part with what our military called Operation Tomodachi, which means "friend" in Japanese. In traveling throughout the region (hardest hit by the quake and ensuing tsunami), we were trying to find ways we could best help. The mayor of the city called Rikuzentakata, which had been hit hard by the tsunami, said, "What you can really do is give hope to our young people." That was one of the impetuses for launching the Tomodachi Initiative, a private-public partnership. It is designed to invest in the young people of Japan and connect them with the young people of the United States. It's been wildly successful. So far we have raised several million dollars. We have focused on three areas: The first is educational exchanges. The second is cultural, music, sports. The third is entrepreneurship and leadership.

Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496; follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.