UNTIL just a few years ago, Japan imported the best in Western science - minus the scientists.The high-tech wonders exported by Japan, such as liquid-crystal screens, were often crafted by engineers who exploited basic ideas from foreign labs, patents, licenses, or papers. Japanese science itself remained less than world class, the country's own scientists agree, and its labs off-bounds to outsiders. "Research in Japan has been hindered by a homogeneity, a me-too-ism, in which Japanese feel uncomfortable unless they are working on something that others are doing," says Fumio Kodama of the government's National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTP). But since the mid-1980s, several thousand Western scientists have been welcomed for short stays in Japanese labs. "The impetus came from Washington, which wanted American scientists in Japanese labs," says Genya Chiba, vice president of the government's Research Development Corporation of Japan. "So far, it's only a sort of scientific tourism," he adds. Japan still sends five times as many researchers to the United States as it accepts from the US, according to government figures, and 42.9 percent of large Japanese companies have put their basic research facilities outside the country, many in the US and Brtain. The latest science import to Japan, however, is more than tourism, it's the model of an American lab from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass. The transplant was initiated by a Japanese real-estate tycoon, Chiyoji Misawa. He gave $10 million to MIT under a five-year agreement intended to stimulate creative research in Japan. The project involves "reciprocity," with an exchange of researchers between the US and Japan, as well as using the school's help in designing a laboratory similar to MIT's Media Lab. A prototype of this facility, named the International Media Research Foundation (IMRF), started up in Tokyo last year. A lab official says that many aspects of the Media Lab are being used in the Japanese version: the research topics, the style of management, and the particular roles of university and corporations. Some changes and additions are being made, largely because of criticism against MIT in the US that it is giving Japan basic discoveries for industry. The lab, which is still in the works, will be unlike anything ever experienced by Japanese researchers, who are usually faced with a stifling conformity and hierarchy inside their own labs. "We don't have places for people with original ideas in Japan," says Tomoyuki Sugiyama, one of six IMRF researchers. "We wanted a place where both Japanese and foreigners can have dreams and see them come true." This imported "dream" lab will operate like a garden, says manager Keiji Yumiyama, with unobstructed open space, greenery, an aquarium, and as few rules as possible, making it an inviting place for researchers to follow their curiosity. Still, in Japan, mixing Japanese and foreign researchers is itself an experiment, as many companies, universities, and national laboratories are finding out. "Everything is different here," says John Maeda, a Japanese-American and a computer graphics researcher hired from the MIT Media Lab. "There's a strong culture in Japan," explains Mr. Maeda, who speaks some Japanese, "that makes it hard to get close to people and even harder to trade ideas. Everyone lives in their own world and rarely builds on each other's knowledge." "Even if foreign researchers are creative, they can't let go in Japanese labs," he says, adding, "But here [at IMRF] I can do what I want." Most foreign researchers are satisfied about their short experience in Japan, says a science counselor at a Western embassy, but they often came with low expectations. Japan's oldest research institution, the government's Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, is the most open to foreigners, who make up about one-fourth of the 400 researchers. Special Western-style housing is provided for foreigners in the institute's Frontier Program. But many foreign researchers are critical of their experience. Many are shocked at the sorry state of university labs, with one Western scientist calling them "an ideal setting for research into the causes of paint peeling." A British Embassy guide for visiting scientists warns: "Any illusions that Japan is an efficiently run country will evaporate on entering a laboratory at a Japanese national university." Even in advanced institutes in Japan, states Dr. Wolfgang Kuchinke, a German scientist who did research at the Osaka Bioscience Institute, "the foreign scientist is still first a foreigner and then a scientist." Not until 1982 was any foreigner allowed to become a permanent faculty member at a national or public university. By 1989, only seven foreigners held such posts. And the flow of foreign researchers began only in 1988 as a result of an agreement struck with Japan by the US. Perhaps most telling, many foreign researchers prefer to comment about their experience only with anonymity. "Most foreign researchers are just tokens, good for the pictures that show a company is international," says one American researcher. "Foreigners aren't allowed to shake things up." Another American researcher comments, "My Japanese colleagues liked the idea of having me around to get a glimpse of my work. But they didn't want to contribute to the work. ... They only picked off the concepts." Three Japanese companies, NEC, Sony, and Toshiba, are often cited as leaders in bringing foreigners into their labs, even though the numbers remain small. Sometimes, the mix of Japanese and foreigners works well. "The first priority of companies is for Japanese to do primary research," says Yukihiro Hirono of the government's policy institute. "But since Japan is such a monoculture, we need foreign stimulation." NEC, for instance, cites the influence of two foreign researchers in helping their Japanese colleagues make a major scientific discovery, announced in Nature magazine last May, in the new field of superconductivity of "buckyballs," carbon molecules shaped like soccer balls. The discovery was made possible only after a Norwegian, Dr. Thomas Ebbesen, and a Chinese-American, J. S. Tsai, privately began their own research on bucky- balls without telling their superiors, says Roy Lang, manager of NEC's fundamental research lab. "Foreigners have a lower threshold in starting up new research or in working people outside their group," Dr. Lang says. "We hope our Japanese researchers will find new concepts by interaction with a foreign culture. Eventually, however, we won't care whether our researchers are Japanese or foreigners." The basic problem for Japanese science is how to change the cultural habits of a nation, according to Japanese scientist Leo Esakis, who in 1960 joined International Business Machines Corporation in 1960 in the US and received a Nobel Prize in 1973. But, says Mr. Chiba of Japan's Research Development Corporation, perhaps a collision of values between Japanese and foreign researchers will lead to great productivity. "When you have two points of view, they must be resolved into a single logic. That needs creativity," he says. Since the mid-80s, Japan has tried to increase its role in international science projects, such as the Freedom space station. In 1987, faced with rising criticism that it has been freeloading off Western science, Japan launched the $6.6 billion Human Frontier Science Program, aimed mainly at research on the brain, and put the headquarters in France. Japan faces a new reason to import more foreign researchers: a growing unpopularity among young Japanese to go into science and engineering. The government's Science and Technology Agency predicts that Japan will be 510,000 scientists short of its needs in the year 2005 if the annual growth rate of the gross national product is 4 percent and 360,000 short if it is 3 percent. "It's an alarming situation," says Chiba. "If we don't have scientists, we don't have basic research."