Valuable Window on Japan May Be Closing, Scholars Fear : Research: New books published there have been acquired with special funds. The money has been cut off.


At a time when Americans are trying harder than ever to figure out the nature of the Japanese economy and society, a small and obscure U.S. government commission has cut off the money that leading American universities have been using to buy new books published in Japan.

The cutoff has touched off a furious debate over how best to come to grips with this country’s chief economic rival. Some scholars argue that the freeze on new books will lead to a long-term decline in American expertise about Japan. Other specialists insist that keeping up with Japanese books and magazines is less important than finding new technologies and approaches.

For more than a decade, the Japan-United States Friendship Commission--a government panel set up with funds obtained when the United States returned Okinawa to Japan--has been donating money to 13 top American universities to acquire Japanese-language books and periodicals.


This book-buying program, says UC San Diego Prof. Chalmers Johnson, is “the only real effort we have in the United States to try to understand the nature of the Japanese challenge. . . . This is what enables scholars to keep track of Japanese publications about Japan’s economy or microcomputer industry. One of the great asymmetries between Japan and the United States is how much they know about us and how little we know about them.”

UC Berkeley’s East Asian Library, which has the largest collection of Japanese-language books of any American university, has been using grants of about $30,000 a year from the Friendship Commission to acquire books recently published in Japan about the country’s trade policies, economy and industries.

Columbia University devoted its commission money to books on Japan’s international finance. Harvard specialized in works on contemporary Japanese politics. Princeton purchased books on Japanese interest groups and Yale on Japanese lifestyles. The universities tried to avoid overlap and traded with one another.

Now, these top American universities will be scaling back dramatically on their purchases of these books, which often contain details and insights about Japan that are not otherwise available in this country. (Only a small handful of the Japanese-language books are ever translated into English.)

In a recent policy change, the Friendship Commission decided to cut off its regular grants for book acquisitions. The commission announced that it wants to give priority to what it calls “policy-oriented research” about Japan of the sort carried out by think tanks.

Commission officials also say that, rather than buying new books in Japan, they will encourage the development of new kinds of technologies or databases that will make the existing university collections of Japanese books available to what they call “second-tier” universities around the United States.

“We have not stopped supporting libraries,” said Eric J. Gangloff, the commission’s acting executive director. “But we have stopped our book-buying program, in order to support developing the infrastructure so that fewer books can get to more places.”

The Friendship Commission was set up by Congress in 1975 to run a trust fund of about $36 million. The money came from Japanese repayments to the United States for American aid after World War II and for public facilities that had been constructed by the United States on Okinawa.

It is one of many tiny commissions that operate out of the limelight in the shadows of Washington’s huge government bureaucracies. Gangloff heads a staff of three. The commission is headed by an 18-member board, including nine government officials and nine private citizens appointed by the head of the U.S. Information Agency.

The federal law setting up the commission said that the money should go toward promoting scholarly, cultural and artistic activities between Japan and the United States--including “support for major collections of Japanese books and publications in appropriate libraries.”

Since then, the commission has been giving regular grants, now amounting to as much as $30,000 a year each, for major American universities to buy new books in Japan. The money has gone to 13 schools: UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, Stanford University, the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, Columbia University, Harvard University, Princeton University and Yale University.

Each of the libraries has some of its own, separate sources of money available. But the Friendship Commission funds were generally used to buy contemporary, specialized books on Japan with information about the nation’s politics and economics.

“We bought yearbooks for the (Japanese) chemical, banking and automotive industries,” said Donald H. Shively, head of UC Berkeley’s East Asian Library. “They are mostly very expensive, about $70 to $100 a volume. With university funds, it’s impossible to get that kind of material. Now, we’ll just have to scale back dramatically.”

Officials at the Friendship Commission say that they have had to reduce their spending, because their annual expenses were beginning to cut into the principal of the trust fund. And, they say, the cost of buying books in Japan has become too steep.

“The prices and numbers of Japanese books have risen dramatically in the past decade, while the power of the dollar to buy them has fallen drastically,” John H. Makin, the commission’s chairman, told Congress last month. “Even with the commission’s support, (university libraries) can no longer maintain their research collections adequately.”

Instead, Makin said, the commission will continue to give some money to libraries, but will now concentrate on “finding ways, through new automation techniques, of making the existing collections of Japanese-language books more accessible to the research community.”

At a recent meeting, commission members decided to give top priority to what Gangloff calls “quality policy research” which might be useful to government officials. Among the research topics suggested were Japan’s demography, political leadership, trade policies, legal culture and pattern of investment in the United States.

This shift in emphasis has irritated some leading scholars at American universities, who say buying books is more important than new studies.

“At its worst, it promotes a Beltway-oriented, think tank approach to foreign affairs,” said Marius B. Jansen, a professor of Japanese history at Princeton. “It’s very difficult to get quality control of such studies. I’m not aware of any difficulty in getting funding for contemporary research.”

“There is no serious research on Japan that is not based on reading Japanese books and journals,” fumed Johnson of UC San Diego. “It doesn’t matter how many economists you have, if they can’t read Japanese.”

The dispute over the books has become so rancorous that Johnson now calls Makin, the Friendship Commission chairman, “a Philistine.” He also says that he believes Makin engineered the shift in emphasis to steer money toward Washington think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, where Makin is employed as a resident scholar.

“The notion that I’m going to funnel gobs of money to AEI is not true and would be unwise on my part,” counters Makin.

For their part, commission officials suggest that the university scholars are being too narrow-minded. Gangloff, the commission’s director, says that he believes the emphasis on buying new books for university libraries “inflates the role of academics in what goes on between Japan and the United States.”

Makin and other commission officials suggest that the dispute eventually may be resolved by obtaining new money for American universities from Japanese sources, such as the Japan Foundation or the new Abe Fund, a $375-million endowment recently set up by the Japanese government to promote scholarly and cultural exchanges between Japan and the United States.

But some of the scholars say that they do not want to become overly dependent on Japanese financing to buy the sort of books that may help Americans to compete effectively with Japan.