Americans might do a better job of balancing US trade with Japan if they understood the Japanese more. To help achieve this, Japan will soon be receiving a delegation of American students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Before they go, they will have spent about three years at Cambridge in the MIT-Japan Science and Technology Program, supplementing their scientific, engineering, and technical skills with knowledge about that growing industrial power's culture, history, society, and politics. They will also speak Japanese.
Then, they will spend a year studying at a Japanese industrial or academic research laboratory.
"People from Mit spend a year at GE or Westinghouse," said Richard J. Samuel's, assistant professor of political science at MIT, and director of the MIT/Japan program. "Why not have them spend a year at Hitachi or Mitsubishi?"
However, adds Ethiel de Sola Pool, professor of political science at MIT, who is helping set up the program, "If you're going to go to Japan and work with Japanese scientists and engineers, you have to speak Japanese. We're giving people who are engineers and technologists the language and enough of the culture so they won't be shocked when they get there."
"Japan has had a long interest in MIT," Dr. Samuels noted. In fact, the "seed money" for the new program came from a japanese alumnus. But the record in the opposite direction is not so good. "We saw that few [Americans] trained at MIT spoke Japanese or had studied Japan's culture or social policy."
It will be a while before the first MIT students pack their Japanese-English dictionaries in their book bags and head for the Far East, Dr. Samuels said. MIT is still in the process of developing a new core of courses on Japan, as well as looking for new faculty and research staff to prepare and teach those courses.
It is also in the process of trying to raise about $1 million to pay for the program, Dr. Pool said. The money would pay for the first five years of classes and costs of sending about a dozen students a year to Japan. He expects a few classes to begin this fall, but the program will probably not be in full swing until fall, 1982.
After two or three years, there could be about 50 students in the program, both in Cambridge and Japan, Dr. Pool said.
Until now, MIT students interested in Japan have had to "cross-register" at nearby Harvard University or Wellesley College to take classes on Japanese history, culture, and language. As many as a third to half of the students taking Japanese language courses at Harvard were from MIT. And there was no organized program of interships in Japanese universities or industries.
On the other hand, Dr. Samuels points out, the Japanese have been making valuable use of American universities and corporations for several years. But the Japanese could not have caught up with so much of Western technology, he notes, if they were simply imitating and borrowing Western know-how, as the common stereotype suggests.
"The characterization of the Japanese as more imitative than creative is unfair," commented Leonard H. Lynn, an assistant professor at Carnegie-Mellon University and former Fulbright scholar in Japan. Dr. Lynn was speaking at a recent MIT-sponsored seminar or Japanese industry and technology.
At that seminar, a number of speakers talked about some of the reasons for the success of "Japan Inc." For instance, said Glen S. Fukushima, of Harvard's Law School and Department of Sociology, it is often possible to find several Japanese companies working on a joint research project. Competition and antitrust laws would prevent this sort of thing from happening in the United States, he noted.
Finding answers to complex technical problems may be easier for the Japanese, noted Jonathan Allen, professor of eletrical engineering and computer science at MIT, because Japan turns out 40 percent more electrical engineers than the US, ". . . and they have half the population."
Japanese resistance to the idea of export restrictions --such as those being urged on Japanese carmakers by the US auto industry -- can be explained by looking at the importance that is placed on industrial and economic security, said Julian Gesser, a law professor at the University of Hawaii.
" Economic security is as important to the Japanese as military security is to us," he said.