Japan universities neglect background checks on foreign students, researchers

About 40% of private universities nationwide failed to conduct background checks on foreign students and researchers when accepting them, despite the government’s requests to do so, according to the results of a survey obtained by The Yomiuri Shimbun.

The government sought the background checks to prevent the export of technologies, such as nuclear power and biotechnology, which could be used by a foreign military.

Japan accepts many foreign students, mainly from China. The recent finding has cast a spotlight on the situation at Japanese universities and brought their management systems into question.

The export of technologies that could lead to the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), among other types of weapons, is restricted under the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law. Passing relevant information to foreign students and researchers via email or phone, or through lectures and conferences, is also restricted.

The government has a list of overseas companies and research institutes suspected of developing WMDs and requires universities to confirm whether their incoming foreign students and researchers are associated with any of the listed entities when accepting them.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry and the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry conducted a survey from February to April last year on all national universities, as well as public and private universities, that have science and information science departments.

Of all the universities surveyed, 299 responded, and 221, or 73.9%, said they conducted background checks on foreign students and researchers to see whether they were associated with any of the organizations named by the government.

The 221 universities comprise 83 national universities, 25 public universities and 113 private universities. Of the national and public universities, 90% said they conducted background checks, while only 63.1% of the private universities said they did so.

The economy ministry is also requiring universities to examine past research projects that their foreign students and researchers have worked on, and keep track of their employment after returning to their home country and check to see whether they have received financial assistance from their home governments.

However, only 80% of national and public universities and 41.9% of private universities established the necessary steps to find out such information when accepting the students and researchers.

As of May 2019, there were 312,214 foreign students in Japan. Chinese students accounted for 40%, or 124,436, an increase of 9,486 from the previous year.

An official of a Tokyo private university that had not taken any relevant measures said: “Our understanding was that research related to military technology was not being conducted by any faculty member. We want to take the appropriate measures.”

An economy ministry official said: “Cryptography research in the field of information, for instance, could be used by the military. Even if it doesn’t look like sensitive technology, we strongly advise universities to think about how such information could be used by foreign students.”

According to the education ministry, investment in research and development in China has been significantly increasing since around 2000. In 2008, the Chinese government launched the Thousand Talents Plan, a national project to attract researchers from overseas. The United States and other countries are becoming increasingly wary of China because of its use of people studying abroad to acquire overseas technologies.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has halted new foreign students from entering Japan, but they will return once the virus is contained.

“If relevant technologies are leaked, the universities and professors involved will be held accountable,” an education ministry official said. “It’s important to conduct background checks on [foreign] students and researchers when accepting them.”