US-Japan traffic in students and education is still a one-way street

For the past four years, Japan's computer and electronics giant Nippon Electric Company has been sending an average of 13 to 15 students annually to the United States.

Most have gone to prestigious schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Business School.

Their objective: to learn the latest techniques of technological research and development and international management.

NEC is just one of many Japanese companies which are organizing specific ''talent-development departments'' to give promising young staff members the benefits of the latest technical and management techniques being developed in the Western world.

But there is not the same flow in the other direction. Few Americans appear at Japan's best postgraduate schools, whether government or private.

And at a time when trade friction between the two countries is at its peak, there could easily be a temptation to see this as another example of the Japanese ''closed door.'' It might also cause Americans to wonder: ''Why should we let the Japanese into our best schools to pick our brains, which only helps further promote their economic advantage against us?''

Good question. And there are no easy answers.

Conversations with a number of Japanese business executives and academics indicate there is some substance to such an American feeling, although perhaps not as much as before. But there appears to be an element of lack of interest and effort on the part of Americans as well.

Yes, a leading academic admitted, it is hard to get into many of Japan's top universities and postgraduate schools. But that applies as much to Japanese as to foreigners. They are involved in an ''old boy'' network with certain universities and tend to favor graduates from them for the limited number of places available.

Whether foreign students fit into the system is also a big worry, and the biggest factor here is communication. Whereas every Japanese schoolchild undergoes several years of basic English tuition prior to the university, there are still very few schools around the world that teach Japanese. But language is no less a problem for thousands of Japanese company employees going overseas each year to the top schools in the US and elsewhere.

A growing number of major corporations in Japan have begun developing programs for study overseas.

In 1979, for example, Nissan Motor Company systematized its approach, and now sends about 20 employees going overseas each year for one or two of study. By 1983, at least 86 had benefited, 18 in engineering and the rest in business administration and language training. About one-third have gone to the US.

But Hisao Miyoshi, the man in charge of the program, insists there is a lot more to the program than the American belief that the Japanese are taking unfair advantage of US expertise.

''The auto industry, like many other sectors of the Japanese economy, is now heavily internationalized,'' he says. ''We want people who can understand there are many different ways to approach a problem and acquire knowledge. What they bring back from the US, for example, is less some secret new way of making a car , but rather they acquire broad stimulation that enables them to be more creative technically or better managers.''

The company provides advanced English-language training, either in Tokyo or in the country where the employee is to study, before entering school.

Since 1980, Matsushita Electric Industrial Company has been sending an average of 10 of its most promising technical engineers to the US each year for study of advanced electronic theory and practice at various institutes.

Why? Company spokesman Akira Nagano is reluctant to give a detailed reason, merely saying: ''These people are already well-qualified and we see this as part of a technical exchange program in the broadest sense.''

Speaking of NEC Corporation's ''talent development'' scheme, spokesman Koichi Shimbo does not believe Japan merely takes the American's best ideas without giving anything in return.

He recalls: ''I'm a graduate of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, which has a very good Japanese language course. These days, the university is packed with Asians and Africans who want to learn about Japan's high technology. There are virtually no Westerners.

''There is no closed door . . . more lack of interest. Many Japanese want to learn about the United States - and regard it as our [their] teacher - so they go there to study. But few Americans still seem to want to know about Japan . . . at least enough to make the effort to study the language long enough to try and attend school here.''

Efforts are under way to overcome the educational imbalance. According to the Education Ministry, there were only 8,100 foreign students in Japan last year, mostly from the third world.

As part of its overall aid program, Japan wants to do more for deserving cases. A new scheme just started, for example, is sponsoring high-school students from Asia and Oceanis, who, after six months intensive language training, go to special training schools like the Nippon Electronics Engineering College.

To enlarge this program, a private advisory panel recently proposed to the government that 50,000 overseas students a year should be sponsored by 1990, and 100,000 by the end of the century.

Japan has a poor record in attracting foreign students compared to the United States, the advisory panel noted. The US now has 312,000 foreigners studying in its advanced schools, followed by 119,000 in France, and around 55,000 in Britain and West Germany.

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