The high cost of being unable to study in Japan

ENDAKA, the dramatic increase in the value of the Japanese yen compared with the United States dollar since the mid-1980s, has been an extremely beneficial development for US-Japanese economic relations. An undervalued yen long gave Japan a competitive edge in trade. Accompanied by US pressures to open Japan's market to American products, endaka is helping to level the trade playing field. But endaka also creates mixed circumstances for would-be American experts on Japan. While endaka helps to enrich the coffers of many American centers for Japanese studies, it fosters conditions in Japan that are onerous for American scholars.

As any American tourist can tell you, spending time in Japan these days requires enormous amounts of money. This situation has an undesirable side effect: Precisely when the need for expertise on Japan is growing, it has become difficult for American scholars to live there.

Tourists need be there only a few days. US diplomats and military who are stationed in Japan are buffered from the yen-based costs by their ability to retreat within their enclave-like compounds. Similarly, US businessmen in Japan are usually cushioned from yen shock by the companies that subsidize their stay in Japan. Most scholars must confront endaka with no buffers.

While there are some funding programs available for US students in Japan, they are inadequate to meet the growing need for Japan expertise. Today's students or academic researchers have to limit their stays in Japan, constrained by the low buying power of dollars in their wallets. Long gone are the days when one could live inexpensively, leisurely roaming the Japanese islands, and absorbing Japanese culture and language. Many contemporary foreign students in Japan spend so much time moonlighting to earn yen (frequently teaching English) that their primary purpose for being there suffers. Academic Japan specialists are compelled to minimize their stays in Japan and economize while there.

This situation may yield a more dedicated cadre of Japan experts, but the net result will probably be fewer such experts. Americans studying in Japan must be willing to feel as third-world students feel in the US, but without enjoying from the Japanese the sympathy Americans usually express toward those from poor nations. Instead, less affluent Americans in Japan today must cope with Japanese condescension, growing out of pride in their new wealth.

Also, since those most able to study or conduct research in Japan are subsidized by Japanese organizations, one long-term trend may be a propensity toward underwriting Japanese studies programs in the US that are well disposed toward Japanese interests. This tendency already skews Japanese studies toward rewards for those whose analyses are sympathetic to Japan. This is especially serious in any area of Japanese studies relevant to US policy concerns. The situation could easily be exacerbated by the growing need for funds for Japanese studies and the availability of those funds from Japanese sources with subtle strings attached.

Endaka's impact on the US diplomatic and military community in Japan also seems likely to influence the future of Japan studies in the US. In the past, many budding Japan studies specialists were first exposed to Japan while stationed in that country or living there as a dependent family member. Today the longstanding tendency of those experiencing culture shock to comfortably isolate themselves on military bases and in diplomatic compounds is being aggravated in Japan by the appeal of cheap PXs and commissaries. There are fewer opportunities for Americans stationed in Japan, especially those with lower salaries, to explore the country. They literally cannot afford to do so very often.

When they go outside their enclaves, these Americans feel poor and don't like it. So they increasingly retreat into their compounds, where their dollars stretch further. The result is less exposure to Japan and less reason for them to consider a career in Japan studies, which would force them to go back to Japan without being buffered by the enclave environment. It is likely that far fewer Americans of this background will enter these fields in the future than they have in the past.

Something needs to be done to change this bleak situation. It will not be easy, however, because the costs of maintaining students or researchers in Japan, especially in Tokyo, where most want to be, is so daunting. Rentals, food, transportation, are all outrageously expensive by US standards. More attention must be paid to devising new - non-Japanese - sources of scholarly funding. Some new combinations of public and private financing are urgently needed, if truly independent scholarship is to thrive.

Edward A. Olsen is professor of national security affairs and of Asian Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

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