Despite a master's degree in Japan studies from Johns Hopkins University, Amy Jackson could never figure out why it took so long for policy decisions to be made by the Japanese bureaucratic agencies she dealt with regularly while working for NASA.

Jackson applied in 1994 and was selected as one of the first Mike Mansfield fellows, a program created by Congress to send U.S. officials to Japan to work in its government ministries. Along with stints in Japan's National Space Development and Science and Technology agencies, she spent two weeks in the Diet, the Japanese equivalent of Congress. It was there that Jackson found out why it's difficult to get information quickly from the Japanese--there must be a consensus before any decision can be made.

Her insights have served her well in her job as director of Japan trade policy in the U.S. Trade Representative's Office. At least they've made Jackson more patient.

"I now have a better understanding of what it takes to get something approved," she said.

Jackson is one of 33 employees from 19 federal agencies who have been Mansfield fellows. The program, administered by the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, a D.C. public policy group named after the former senator and ambassador to Japan, is designed to increase understanding within governmental ranks and foster better relations with Japan, an increasingly important trading partner and global financial player.

"People who go bring something back," said Paige Cottingham-Streater, deputy executive director of the Mansfield Center. "It may take some time to maximize that expertise, but at least they can serve as a resource on Japan."

The search for the newest set of fellows is underway. Federal workers have until March 24 to apply to the center. Fellows are required to work in the federal government for at least two years after they return.

Stanley J. Austin was a manager in the wetlands division of the Environmental Protection Agency's water office when he applied for the fellowship. He said he always had a "peripheral interest" in Asia and was curious about how Japan compared to the United States on water issues. Once he was accepted into the program, he faced the arduous task of learning Japanese.

Even with language lessons eight hours a day for a year, Austin said he was able to learn just enough to get by. "It's difficult to learn a language at 38," he said.

Austin, an African American, discovered that he stood out more than the typical Mansfield fellow. While working in the ministries of environment and construction, he said he turned the heads of his Japanese co-workers.

"I would have a lunch date almost every day of the week," he said. "People were curious. They'd never talked to an African American before."

Austin said he wasn't able to directly use his Japanese expertise when he returned. "They already have people who deal with Japan," he said of the EPA.

Cottingham-Streater acknowledges that this is an issue. Fellows must get their agency's blessing before they enter the program, which comes with the presumption that the expertise will be utilized. Still, a lot can change in two years, such as priorities or bosses.

But Austin has used his experience in more general ways. He tries to incorporate the same "we're all in this together," team-type atmosphere he found in Japan in his office here.

"I felt a level of compassion there that I've never felt in an American office," he said.

CAPTION: The fellowship helped Amy Jackson, director of Japan trade policy in the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, better understand Japanese decision-making.