OSAKA — John Roos, the lawyer President Barack Obama has picked as next U.S. ambassador to Japan, will likely emphasize closer public and private cooperation on developing clean and “green” technologies and take an interest in bilateral health care issues, U.S. sources close to him said Friday.
But while acknowledging the designated ambassador’s wishes are likely to take a back seat to defense and regional security issues, especially given North Korea’s recent actions, they also dismissed concerns over Roos’ lack of Japan expertise.
The sources suggested such criticism was motivated partly by jealousy in certain quarters that Obama is appointing someone unknown rather than an established expert.
Roos, currently chief executive officer at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a Silicon Valley law firm, was a surprise choice for ambassador. The Californian has little Japan experience and accepted the position after Harvard professor Joseph Nye, a well-known Asian expert, and several others, including former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, reportedly declined.
“Roos has overseen and managed a global, technology-focused law firm since 2005,” the White House said in a press statement announcing Roos had been tapped for the ambassador’s post.
“Throughout his tenure, he helped lead the firm during the various waves of innovation in Silicon Valley, from the growth of software and communications to the Internet Age, the emergence of biotechnology, to the present focus on clean technology and renewable energy,” the statement read.
“Obama has said he admires Japan’s green technologies, especially its auto and consumer electronics industries. Roos’ experience and interest in these areas makes him a natural fit to pursue new initiatives with Japan,” said a Washington-based U.S. government official with experience in Japan, who spoke anonymously because Roos’ appointment hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate yet.
“The problem for many bureaucrats, politicians and mainstream media in Washington and Tokyo is that green technology and health care are areas they have little or no expertise in. They can talk all day about defense cooperation, finance and trade issues involving autos and agriculture, but not on green technology investments or health care initiatives,” the official said.
“And they’re afraid they’ll be out of the loop.”
Tobias Harris, who runs Observing Japan, a blog on Japanese politics, says the selection of someone who is not a prominent Washington insider is a sign the Obama administration sees Japan as a normal nation, free of the kind of problems that plague relations with countries like China.
“Roos’ appointment should not be treated as Japan’s being downgraded, but as Japan’s not being a problem for Washington,” he said.
“Japan, not being the source of major problems for the U.S., does not require a high-profile troubleshooter as ambassador,” Harris said.
Still, with North Korea’s recent nuclear test and missile launches, Roos is likely to find that traditional geopolitical concerns will be at the top of the agenda, although he may wish to speak to Japan at length on things like new hydrogen batteries.
“(Green technology and health care) will not replace bread and butter issues. Roos’ number one task is reassuring Japan’s elites that the U.S. will meet its obligations to come to Japan’s defense,” Harris said.
“That message ultimately has less to do with the messenger (the ambassador) than the messenger’s persistence, and the extent to which the messenger has the backing of the administration,” he said.
In preparation for his new post, Roos has been consulting academic experts at Stanford University’s Asia Pacific Research Center, one of the United States’s top centers for research on Japan and East Asia, but far away from more traditional think tanks and academic experts in Washington and New York.
While Roos personally has little Japan experience, the law firm he heads, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, has done business with several Japanese companies over the years, drawing up agreements involving Toshiba Corp., Sanyo Electric Co. and Japan Tobacco Inc.
Obama’s selection of Roos could also turn out to be a wise political choice in a few months, after Japan holds its Lower House election. Roos is a graduate of Stanford University, where he also got his law degree and remains active as an adviser.
An election victory by the opposition’s Democratic Party of Japan, currently predicted by many pundits, means Roos will likely deal with new prime minister and fellow Stanford alumnus Yukio Hatoyama, who received a doctoral degree in engineering from the university.
Some Japanese media originally reported that Nye, the clear preference of many Japanese officials, had accepted the offer of the ambassador’s post.