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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — An editorial in The Japan Times a few weeks ago focused on the Japanese government’s efforts to increase the number of foreign students in Japan. No one would disagree with the government’s dual aims of assisting in the development of human resources of poorer Asian countries and increasing the international community’s understanding of Japan. However, there are three questions that merit examination:

* What geographic areas are given priority for cultural exchanges?

* How should the problem of Japan’s prohibitive cost of living be addressed?

* How can greater interaction be achieved both among students and among teachers?

Regarding geographic priorities, in a 1995 survey conducted by the Japanese prime minister’s office regarding priority regions for future cultural exchange, East Asia came in first at 50.4 percent, followed by Southeast and South Asia at 23.5 percent, Oceania at 14.2 percent, North America at 12.8 percent and Western Europe at 6.9 percent.

It would be interesting to compare these figures with the results of a more recent survey, but I suspect there would be no dramatic change in attitudes. The conclusions that can be drawn from the survey are reflected in the fact that in 1999, 90 percent of foreign students came from Asia, with the largest numbers coming from China, South Korea and Taiwan, respectively.

Regarding the second issue, no one has a magic recipe on how to deal with the astronomical costs of studying in Japan. New trends in international learning make it even more imperative that Japan find ways of reducing the costs faced by foreign students.

During a recent academic seminar in Bangkok, I had an opportunity to talk about new programs of international cooperative learning with some outstanding scholars from a number of countries. These programs center on brief but extremely intensive study-tours by university students and faculty members to countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Taiwan and Japan. Participants can benefit from home stays and direct contacts not only with foreign academics, but also with people from all walks of life, including industrialists, journalists, social workers and even peasants.

Unfortunately, the enormous costs of living in Japan force academic visits to Japan to be shorter than those to other countries. The negative implications this has on the program and for exchanges in general is obvious. More attention must be focused on how to minimize expenses for foreign students in Japan. Perhaps now that the cost of international travel has been reduced, Japan should focus on lowering accommodation costs rather than subsidizing the costs of travel to and from Japan

Finally, Japanese policymakers should consider not only the number of student exchanges that take place, but also the overall level of interaction among faculty members.

Through greater interaction among students as well as teachers, Japan can project a better image abroad and those coming to study or teach in Japan can draw greater intellectual benefits. Efforts to boost interaction should include the participation of interested and motivated teachers from abroad. To preserve established academic hierarchies and university policies, and to achieve greater integration, a title such as “visiting lecturer” could be given to such faculty members. Such “enlightened outsiders” could make positive contributions to both research and academic thinking. After all, such people have historically played a key role in advancing learning in Japan as well as in other countries.

In this connection, I find most praiseworthy a very recent proposal of the queen of Thailand to establish in Thailand an institute where the talent and experience of senior citizens will be put to use in the education of younger generations. This program will also have the benefit of improving the self-esteem of the senior citizens who participate in it.

The above ideas form a framework that can certainly be expanded. Perhaps the Japan Foundation could initiate an informal seminar involving people who care about the new challenges of our times and their impact on the cultural arena of Japan.

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