University fund-raisers, having put the touch on alumni and domestic corporations for decades, are waking to a fresh source of deep pockets -- corporate Japan.

At the University of California at Berkeley, Japanese companies have donated $6 million to help fund a prominent East Asian studies institute, renovate a science classroom building and construct a new facility at its school of optometry.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Japanese corporations have funded 22 professorial chairs valued at between $750,000 and $2 million each. At Princeton and Harvard universities, Japanese companies have recently donated $600,000 and $100,000, respectively, to Asian studies there.

"The planes are loaded with university solicitors," said Pat Choate, longtime critic of Japanese economic policy whose forthcoming book, "Agents of Influence," sharply criticizes Japanese lobbying activity in the United States.

Indeed, while Japanese corporate giving accounts for only about 5 percent of total giving to U.S. universities by companies, according to the trade publication Corporate Philanthropy Report, it has rapidly become their fastest-growing area of fund-raising. Growing at an estimated 25 percent annually, giving from Japan is expected to surpass that from all other foreign companies within three years, education observers say.

The universities argue that it is in part through the generous donations of Japanese companies that higher education in the United States will remain competitive worldwide. To wall off the Japanese from collegiate gift-giving is xenophobic and shortsighted, they say.

"We pursue fund-raising with Japan as we would with any other entity in West Europe or the U.S.," said Ronald Suduiko, who works in the area of government relations for MIT.

"It's an area where there's an interest in education and research and an interest in fostering it here."

For skeptics like Choate, however, the trend paints an ominous picture of Japanese encroachment into U.S. society. If the schools are to protect the national interest in areas from basic research to preparing the next generation of business leaders, as this group claims, then taking money from competitors like Japan risks giving away the nation's industrial future.

"What Americans are doing is surrendering the autonomy they have over their own system," said Ronald A. Morse, executive vice president of the Economic Strategy Institute. "What you're doing over time is building a very powerful internal constituency favorably disposed to Japan. You're buying power."

It is not the first time foreign companies have shown a surge of interest in American schools. In the post-oil embargo years of the mid-1970s, Arab companies and governments flush with oil cash sought to improve ties in the West through such philanthropy.

But the current trend comes as the United States faces a severe competitive test from Japan. Critics fear that Japanese corporations aim to buy not just goodwill with their donations, but also the product of years of research paid for by the federal government and U.S. corporate sponsors. Worse, they claim, no reciprocal arrangements are possible for U.S. companies because the bulk of Japanese research is done in closed laboratories through the companies themselves, not government or higher education.

Pursuing Donations

Only the largest universities have made serious attempts to broaden the flow of donations. They have been most successful at fund-raising because of their extensive alumni networks of foreign students, powerful reputations and the advertisement of their strongest programs.

Berkeley, prominently poised on the Pacific, established a fund-raising office in Tokyo three years ago. MIT, long an international symbol of applied research, attracts attention because of its status and a large foreign contingent among its students and faculty.

Yet even research powerhouses without such programs have been successful. The University of Michigan earlier this month said it received a $3 million gift from Mitsui Life Insurance Co. and a $500,000 grant from Sumitomo Bank.

"We raise more in East Asia than we have in New York, and we've just touched the tip of the iceberg in both places," said W.M. Laetsch, vice chancellor for development at Berkeley, whose school is seen by many as the most successful university fund-raiser in Japan.

The Japanese corporations themselves explain that the giving springs from nothing more than the discovery of joint interest and evolving, good-faith efforts to participate in U.S. society.

"You are seeing a broader range of exchanges taking place, certainly in the amount of dollars involved and a more, shall we call it, in-depth understanding of the importance of the American higher education community to the operation of industry in the United States," said Delwin Roy, president of the Hitachi Foundation in New York City.

Roy, viewed as the dean among the heads of U.S.-based Japanese philanthropies, said that while Japanese giving to American education has been perceived in the past as an attempt to ensure long-term access to science and technology, recent giving reflects a "qualitative change" as Japan seeks to become a partner within the U.S. economy.

For the schools, the key issue is whether the new fund-raising poses conflicts of interest, specifically whether Japan wants something more for its money than mere goodwill.

At some schools, that issue has begun to be discussed. At Cornell University, questions are being asked about the number of Asian students being accepted to the business schools and the expectations of Japanese corporate donors.

"We find that because we have one of the highest percentages of applicants from Japan in the country, there are all kinds of relations Japanese companies want to have with us," said James W. Schmotter, associate dean of Cornell's Johnson School of Management.

Typically, Schmotter said, the equation takes the form of corporate grants for acceptances of their employees as MBA students. Japanese students make up about 10 percent of the Johnson school enrollment, and applications from Japan have risen rapidly, the dean said. The total last year from Tokyo outnumbered that from New York City.

At the same time, interest from Japanese companies in Cornell's corporate affiliate program -- in which companies agree to make ongoing gifts to the school -- has boomed as well. Eighteen Japanese companies are now among 88 affiliates, up from about five three years ago.

Caution Emerges

The school has thus become "cautious" in its relations and made sure not to rely on company-subsidized students such as those from Japan to meet its tuition bills, Schmotter said.

Meanwhile, MIT has encountered congressional opposition to its Industrial Liaison Program. In the program, one of the most successful in U.S. academia, about 250 businesses worldwide pay annual fees of $10,000 to $75,000 to work with university laboratories and professors, usually buying the right to early access to research.

Although Japanese companies make up only about 50 of the participants, they tend to be most active in research and contribute $1.9 million in annual fees. That aggressive interest has prompted congressional critics like Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) to examine similar programs at about 36 U.S. schools to see if they give foreign companies too much access to federally funded research.

"The university presidents are flying to Tokyo and acting like fund-raisers rather than bringing this issue up to their trustees and trying to get it to the education leadership forums," said Craig Smith, editor of Seattle-based Corporate Philanthropy Report.

Behind the debate lurks a much deeper question about the proper role of higher education, according to officials on both sides.

"There's a struggle taking place clearly implied in this whole discussion," said Paul Sweet, director of federal relations for the University of California. That struggle, said Sweet, centers on the question of whether universities should pursue higher education for its own sake or whether they have a broader responsibility to the national interest.

SOME OF THE GIFTS FROM JAPANESE COMPANIES TO SELECTED AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES

University of Michigan

Business school has received $3 million from Mitsui Life Insurance Co. for Asian financial market research. Law school has received $1.2 million from Nippon Life and $500,000 from Sumitomo Bank. University of California at Berkley

Has received $6 million over five years, including several half-million and million-dollar gifts in electronics and computer science, $100,000 for school of optometry and $600,000 for East Asian Institute. Stanford University

Established a Kyoto campus last year. Chairs endowed by Hitachi Ltd., Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co. and Industrial Bank of Japan. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Corporations in Japan have given 22 endowed chairs since 1972. Japanese gifts represent 3.5 percent of endowment. Cornell University

Business school has ties with 18 Japanese companies, up from five companies three years ago.