TOKYO — The appointment of John Roos as the U.S. ambassador to Japan in 2008 was not the typical pick for such a high profile position.
Roos, a Silicon Valley lawyer and a supporter of President Obama during his run for presidency, had no previous diplomatic or political-office experience and says he too was surprised when he received a call for the nomination.
Roos' education in Japan's strength and vulnerabilities took an accelerated turn when a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan in March 2011. He helped coordinate one of the largest U.S. military humanitarian assistance efforts, called Operation Tomodachi. The operation -- Tomodachi means "friend" in Japanese -- cost over $90 million and involved about 24,000 U.S servicemembers, according to Japan Times.
Following the two-month operation a nationwide survey by Japan's Foreign Ministry found that 82% of Japanese felt "friendly feelings" toward the United States, an all time high.
Roos' office is overseeing a new cultural program -- The Tomodachi Initiative. Roos recently sat down with USA TODAY to talk about the program and other issues.
Q: Why did the Embassy start the initiative?
A: We wanted to continue to find ways to help the Tohoku region. In talking to many leaders there, what I heard was that the U.S. could add tremendous value by providing hope to a younger generation of the Tohoku region.
We've viewed that one of the longer term risks of the relationship between the U.S. and Japan is the declining connections between our younger generations.
Q: Why do you think the connection between the younger generations is declining?
There are some trends that are of concern. In particular, the number of young Japanese students who come to the U.S. to study had been declining significantly over the last decade.
Whenever I travel (here), I try to go a high school or university to hear what they're thinking and to encourage them to come to the U.S. There are many reasons why (they don't). One is financial and another is to stay here and get job opportunities.
Q: Is this a local program for the Tohoku region?
In the aftermath of the crisis, we established it as a public-private partnership. We have a private sector partner, the U.S. Japan Council, and raised $15 million and established 25 programs that were mostly focused on the Tohoku region. But it is now expanding into all of Japan and U.S.
Q: What are you doing with the money?
To give you a couple of examples, The Tomadachi Summer Softbank Leadership Program at the University of California, Berkeley, (in which) 300 high school students attended a seminar on leadership and community development at the university for three weeks. Masayoshi Son (SoftBank's founder and CEO) spent time at UC Berkeley. He felt that it changed his life.
We just announced a $1.6 million scholarship with Uniqlo, a (Japanese) retailer. They will identify Japanese students to go to three U.S. universities -- Stanford Graduate School of Business; Parsons, The New School for Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Coca-Cola did a (U.S.) home-stay program for 60 (Japanese) kids last summer and they're committed to doubling the program.
People talk about Japanese kids as being inward looking. But my experience is that if you offer them an opportunity, they'll take it.
Q: What is the goal?
For the young generations of Japan and the U.S. to develop affinity for each other. Many call the 21st century the Asia Pacific century. Over half of the global economy will be located here. President Obama just announced re-balancing toward the Asia Pacific region.
As the U.S. ambassador to Japan, I see this challenge of our younger generations not knowing each other as well as the prior generations.
Q: Should Japan encourage more entrepreneurship in general?
I (spent) 25 years in Silicon Valley. Here, I saw many of the (required) components - protection of intellectual property, a tremendous amount of capital, a well-educated society. At the same time, there are challenges. They're risk-averse. (Risk-taking) is what entrepreneurship requires.
But in the last three years I've been here, I've seen an increase movement for entrepreneurial environment. And since March 11 (2011), there has been definitely an increase in company formations and entrepreneurship.
Given the economic challenges in Japan in the last couple of decades, there's increasing recognition of the importance of entrepreneurship.
As the younger generation begins to look at success stories, they're beginning to say 'This is what I want for myself.' And the fact that job opportunities in larger companies aren't as strong as it used to be.
The (disaster) shook the country and that led many to think "What do I want for myself and the country."
Q: Should Japan also undertake an educational system to encourage more entrepreneurial thinking?
I've seen more entrepreneurial programs at universities. I (visit) universities and their incubation centers. I talk about risk taking and an entrepreneurial culture. The most important is role models. But I also talk about studying abroad and coming to not just the U.S. -- obviously I prefer them to come to the U.S. -- and experience an environment like Silicon Valley. And I encourage learning English.
Q: Are Japanese companies losing their nimbleness as regional competition increases in Asia?
I've heard that criticism. I'd not underestimate the power and strength of Japan. I see incredible technological developments. Obviously major corporations face challenges. But it's an incredible country in many ways.
I'd not underestimate the competitive powers of the Japanese people.