POCANTICO HILLS, N.Y. — DEVELOPMENT officers, alias fund-raisers, from United States universities have been racking up large chunks of frequent-flyer mileage with trips to Tokyo in recent years. They have been seeking, with considerable success, endowments and grants from Japanese corporations and their foundations for professorial chairs or various research programs. The schools have been exploiting a relatively new phenomenon on the world scene: a blossoming of Japanese philanthropic foundations.
So far these foundations are no match in size for their major counterparts in the US, such as the Rockefeller or Ford foundations. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Japan's largest by far, has assets of $200 million. Most of the 200 or so Japanese foundations of any size have endowments of only a few million dollars or less.
Tadashi Yamamoto, president of the Japan Center for International Exchange, says Japan is going through ``a nouveau riche phase.'' He is referring to the vast increase in Japanese wealth during the past two decades. Japan is now the world's largest creditor nation and either No. 2 or 3 in economic might. Japan's investments abroad have multiplied, sometimes causing a commotion, as was the case with the purchase last week by Mitsubishi of majority ownership in New York City's Rockefeller Center.
Foreigners, notes Mr. Yamamoto, often are urging Japan to take up a greater share of the burden of foreign aid and other international duties. ``Critics invariably point to the inappropriate level of Japan's corporate and individual giving for philanthropic causes.''
Many Japanese corporations have responded to these pressures by providing funds either to Keidanren, the major Japanese business association, or by setting up their own foundations.
Much of this philanthropy is public relations-motivated, says Mikio Kato, who along with Yamamoto was attending a recent conference here at the Rockefeller family estate on philanthropy in the 21st century. Unlike in the US, where most foundations were established by wealthy men with clear philanthropic goals, many Japanese foundations are set up first and ``find a cause afterward.'' Mr. Kato is associate managing director of the International House of Japan in Tokyo.
Other Japanese have noted cultural differences in regard to philanthropy. Many Japanese, when they make a grant, consider it a gift and do not regard it as proper to monitor its use. American philanthropists normally are careful to make sure their money is used wisely and productively.
Japanese foundations also differ from their American counterparts in their lack of professional staff. Akira Iriyama is executive director of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which was established nearly four years ago by a Japanese shipbuilder. Mr. Iriyama says his foundation is exceptional in that it employs 20 professionals. But he admits that the endowment of most Japanese foundations is so small they can hardly afford to hire professional staff.
Yamamoto would like to see more visits by American foundation executives to Japanese foundations to help the Japanese learn more about philanthropic professional skills. He says too many Japanese foundation executives are ``tired and retired'' bureaucrats or company executives.
The head of a small think tank, Yamamoto would like to see more and larger foundations established in Japan to help that nation become more pluralistic and to act as ``change agents'' and providers of creative ideas. In the past, Japanese bureaucrats (Yamamoto called them ``sons and grandsons of Samurai'') often stimulated advances in Japanese social and economic affairs. But they are no longer doing so adequately, he says.
``They follow precedents - don't take a chance,'' he holds. ``We are not meeting the requirements of a great nation.''
The interest of Japanese foundations, most of them corporate-financed, in boosting the Japanese image abroad is reflected in some of their activities. They have made contributions to many prominent US universities - Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and so on.
On Tuesday, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation bought a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal with an article by former president Jimmy Carter on Global 2000, his program for helping African farmers that was partially financed by Sasakawa. Japanese philanthropy has also made donations to the performing arts in the US and elsewhere.