Japan has told the United States it is willing to go ahead with U.S.-burgeoning trade surplus - but wants them shifted to the ministerial level.

American sources said yesterday arrangements would be made over the next several weeks for higher-level discussions, possibly late in December, to be led by Robert S. Strauss, the President's special trade negotiator. Officials said there may be one subcabinet-level meeting in the interim.

The disclosures came as the Carter administration tried to dispel earlier reports that the U.S. initiative had ended in failure, in the wake of harsh public reaction in Tokyo to an exploratory visit last weekend by American officials.

The ill-feeling reached such a peak in Tokyo that Richard Rivers, the key U.S. envoy in the talks, was called home Monday to review the situation. Rivers returned to Washington Wednesday and reported to top Carter policy makers.

Officials asserted that Rivers was summoned home because the administration was not satisfied with the progress of the preliminary talks, not in response to the sharp public outcry in Japan. Some officials here suggested yesterday that Rivers had received a "bum rap" in Japanese newspapers.

The assertions clearly were an attempt to assuage Tokyo's feelings, while maintaining a firm insistence that Japan begin taking serious action to cope with its trade surplus.

The United States has given Japan a list of recommendations for reducing its so-called "current account" surplus - a formal measure of the balance of international payments that combines trade transactions and capital flows. However, the Japanese have branded them too trash.

A good portion of the clamor over the U.S. initiative stemmed from newspaper reports of remarks by high U.S. officials that criticized Tokyo's policies. One article quoted Vice President Mondale as charging that Prime Minister Fukuda had "failed" to keep his promise on trade.

Although Mondale's office has not issued a retraction, key U.S. aides said yesterday the Vice President was "misquoted" in the article. The administration already has apologized to the Japanese. Nevertheless, the reports shocked many Japanese officials.

The U.S. has been trying to persuade Japan to reduce its surplus since the Carter administration first took office last January. The Japanese reluctance is based on fears that such action would hurt their own domestic industries.

U.S. officials said yesterday they were caught offguard by the Japanese reaction to the initial effort last weekend. They said the administration had intended only a low-key effort to propose suggestions, not to dictate Japanese policy.