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PALO ALTO,, Calif. — The announcement of Silicon Valley attorney and Barack Obama fundraiser John V. Roos as U.S. ambassador- designate to Japan has sparked questions about what this appointment means for the U.S.-Japan relationship. Is the choice of a Washington outsider with no obvious Japan experience a sign of “Japan passing”?

The personal qualifications and interests of the ambassador-designate will become clearer in the coming months under the scrutiny of the press and Senate confirmation. But one can already argue that Roos’ experience as a key player in the creation and growth of some of Silicon Valley’s greatest companies instead may be just right for the relationship of the U.S. with an emerging New Japan.

As CEO of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati (WSGR), Roos leads an institution that is more than just a large law firm in the San Francisco area. WSGR changed the legal services industry by establishing a new type of specialized practice, namely full service legal solutions for new high-tech companies and related industries.

Until John Arnot Wilson established the direct predecessor of WSGR in Palo Alto in 1961, entrepreneurs in what would later become Silicon Valley had little alternative but to go to San Francisco law firms whose expertise and worldview focused on large corporate clients and traditional financial institutions.

Wilson and his team developed a culture as well as a suite of legal services that was responsive to, and aligned with, the needs of high-tech entrepreneurs and venture investors. In 1969, they even took the pioneering step of creating an investment company to manage the stock options that some startup clients were using instead of cash to pay their legal fees.

With a history that includes assisting in the formation of the first Silicon Valley venture capital firms and seeing companies like Apple Computer and Google through initial public offerings, WSGR has played a direct role in shaping the Silicon Valley of the present.

Roos came to WSGR in 1985 as part of an aggressive expansion of the firm from 32 lawyers in 1981 to 97 lawyers in 1986. Promoted to partner in 1988, he became a player in the subsequent exponential growth both of the firm and of Silicon Valley. WSGR now includes around 600 attorneys, and its client base numbers over 300 public and 3,000 private companies. Moreover, Roos, who became CEO in 2005, achieved his professional success during a time of major seismic shifts in the Silicon Valley business environment: several boom-and-bust economic cycles, the emergence of new technology paradigms, and intense globalization.

According to the “2008 Index of Silicon Valley,” a language other than English is now spoken in 48 percent of the homes of Silicon Valley, more than double the U.S. national average.

His experience puts Roos at the center of a dense network of personal and business relationships with key players in every aspect of the Silicon Valley new venture ecosystem: serial entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors, top university innovators and successful venture accelerators, as well as the large firms, opinion makers, journalists and others with whom they interact.

Accordingly, Roos has direct personal insights into the full range of conditions that face the high-tech industries that have come to the forefront of business relationships between the U.S. and Japan. His work as an attorney has required him to recognize and adapt quickly to the corporate cultures and concerns of new clients on a case-by-case basis. His success, achieved in the volatile atmosphere of Silicon Valley, bodes well for his ability to grasp quickly the new patterns of institutional change that are beginning to emerge in what has been termed the New Japan.

The scale and breadth of change already under way in Japan extends to all sectors: economy, government and politics and social structure and culture itself. It has been clear for some time that Japan is in the process of making a major shift toward a more innovation-based knowledge economy.

Japanese government programs and private sector emphasis on increasing the capacity for entrepreneurship, open innovation and global integration all point to some new model of economic competitiveness for Japan. Government itself has been the object of numerous efforts at reform, and the future impact of current demographic trends (low birth rate, aging population) has become a top concern among Japanese citizens as well as policymakers.

Nevertheless, exactly which new patterns will become the stable, dominant characteristics of New Japan is still an open question. This topic is the focus of several recent and ongoing research programs in U.S. universities and research institutions, including some that are being conducted jointly with Japanese counterparts.

The U.S. Foreign Service likewise includes many professional career diplomats with a wealth of experience who have been following all aspects of the evolution of U.S.-Japan relations. Ambassadors are encouraged by the State Department to develop their own signature, country-specific programs.

For example, former U.S. Ambassador to Italy Ron Spogli launched the Partnership for Growth, a comprehensive program to grow a new venture ecosystem, which resulted in a measurable increase in new venture formation and angel and venture investing in Italy.

Any ambassador will have many resources at his disposal to deal with the full range of issues that may appear in the U.S.-Japan relationship. It is his personal experience as a driver of the Silicon Valley innovation machine under conditions of rapid, dramatic change that makes John Roos a very promising choice for ambassador to Japan at the present time.

Professor Richard B. Dasher has been director of the U.S.-Asia Technology Management Center at Stanford University since 1994. From 1986-1990, he was attached to the U.S. Embassy Tokyo as director of the Foreign Service Institute field school in Yokohama, which provides full-time training to U.S. diplomats.

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