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Japan Visa Limits Unfair, U.S. Schools Say : Education: University officials ask Tokyo to relax restrictions on American students to redress imbalance.


TOKYO — Detroit native Heather Sullivan, 19, imagined Japan as a nation of kimono-clad women, high-tech gizmos, deeply held Buddhism and standoffish people.

But in her year here at Temple University's Japanese campus, she has learned that nearly everyone wears suits and skirts, that some low-tech train stations still collect tickets by hand, that relatively few Japanese seriously practice a religion and that people are friendlier than she'd thought.

Fellow Temple student Reiko Murakami, 21, of Nara, Japan, has been startled by the independence and diligence of American college students, as well as by the U.S. academic style of challenging professors. In Japan, getting into college is far more rigorous than actually attending, and professors are often deferred to almost as gods.

U.S.-Japanese student exchanges--helping the economically entwined but culturally distant peoples learn firsthand about each other--would seem as non-controversial as Mom, apple pie and Mt. Fuji. But in what some view as a brewing bilateral trade dispute, U.S. officials are appealing to the Japanese government to redress an imbalance in academic exchange and grant more student visas to Americans.

Just as interest in Japan among young Americans is soaring--Japanese is now the fastest-growing foreign language in U.S. high schools--restrictive laws, compounded by a 1991 immigration crackdown, have made it extremely difficult for all but those choosing to study at Japanese universities to obtain student visas.

In 1991, the Japanese government granted 1,428 student visas to Americans, according to Justice Ministry figures. In contrast, the U.S. government granted 34,657 five-year student visas to Japanese between October, 1991, and September, 1992--including those applying to Japanese institutions in the United States. Both figures include visas for high school students.

That discrepancy, some Americans argue, amounts to the same kind of closed market and unfair trade that has fired disputes over semiconductors, autos and other business sectors. One reason for the resistance, some U.S. officials suggest, may be Japanese educators' fears of competition for a shrinking pool of college-age students if it becomes easier for American universities to operate here.

"We feel there are real inequities and are beginning to view this as a trade issue," said William Sharp, dean of Temple University's branch campus in the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji. "We are at a tremendous competitive disadvantage because few of our students can come here to study."

Japanese officials, however, say that student visas generally are granted only to applicants at recognized Japanese universities--and that Americans should adapt to that system like everyone else.

Indeed, Americans who apply to study at Japanese universities generally face no problem obtaining student visas. At issue is the growing number of American students who are choosing to spend a semester or year at the Japanese campuses of American universities, which have grown to more than 15 in the last decade.

Although these campuses are primarily aimed at Japanese students wanting to study in a U.S. academic environment, the booming interest in Japan among Americans has prompted educators to recruit more from home.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo estimates that several hundred more Americans would come to study at U.S. universities' branch campuses in Japan in the next 12 to 18 months if there were no visa problems, and the number could reach 1,000 over several years.

Because Japanese authorities do not recognize the branch campuses as bona fide universities, most students come without a visa and must leave the country in 90 days, are denied student discounts on rail passes and are generally prohibited from working even part time.

"When they were setting up their programs, they never consulted us or the local areas to see what the requirements were," said Toshio Yasuma, an Education Ministry official. "They went off and took their own path."

Education Minister Mayumi Moriyama, in a recent meeting with U.S. Ambassador Michael H. Armacost, minced no words in telling him that Americans should adapt to Japanese rules, according to Education Ministry official Kiyoji Ichikawa, who was present.

Moriyama also invited U.S. campuses to become Japanese institutions, thereby allowing their students to qualify for visas. But U.S. educators say that option is impractical given the enormous capital investment required and detailed rules that range from the size and type of classrooms and offices to the curriculum content.

U.S. educators also argue that they were invited to Japan by various prefectures or Japanese corporations and that Japan should use this chance to help address its legitimate complaint that few Americans study its language or culture.

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