Japanese tanners have begun buying American cattlehides in record number, bidding up the prices of skins and threatening to corner much of the price of skins and threatening to corner much of the raw leather market here.

The heavy foreign purchases have been spurred by the recent dramatic rise of the yen against the dollar in international exchange markets, which has made American hides - as well as many other U.S. goods and raw materials - relatively cheaper for Japanese companies.

Since the first of the year, the Japanese have taken almost 13 percent more U.S. cattlehides this year than during the same period last year, according to the Tanners' Council of America. The United States has always shipped a large portion of its hides overseas, but as a result of more aggressive buying by the Japanese, the number of hides exported in recent months has jumped from roughly half of the total produced to nearly three quarters. To compound the problem, the total number of hides available on the U.S. market has shrunk by 3 percent because of slightly reduced slaughter.

With foreign demand up and supply down, prices of hides are now running about 50 percent higher this year than last.

"The Japanese have been raiding our reduced supply of hides and causing havoc in our markets and prices," said Eugene Kilik, president of the Tanners' Council. "The sharp increase in prices is threatening the very existence of the tanning industry. Activity by our own tanners has ground to a near standstill. Orders have dried up. They don't know what to do."

Normally, an increase in U.S. exports to Japan would be applauded as an improvement in the lopsided trade relationship between the two countries. But the American hide market, in addition to being a major source for world supply, is the primary raw material source for a wide assortment of leather-related industries here at home, including shoes, handbags, suitcases and clothing. Managers in these industries do not like the prospect of paying more for their principal raw material.

"In the final analysis, we will have to raise our prices," said Edward Fitzgibbons, senior vice president of Melville Corp., maker of Thom McAn shoes. "You've had a 16-cents-per-pound increase in the price of hides. That translates into at least 26-cents-per-foot increase in leather costs. Which translates into an increase of anywhere from $2 to $6 for a pair of men's shoes at retail, depending on the leather content."

With price increases like this, leather makers worry their products will become less competitive with leather imports which are already posing still competition.

There are other countries with large supplies of cattlehides - notably Argentina, Brazil and Uraguay. But these restrict access to foreign hide buyers, this preserving a cheap supply source for their own leather industries which, in turn, export finished leather goods to the U.S. at relatively low prices.

At the same time, the Japanese do not export finished leather products to the U.S., and so do not have to be concerned about the high prices they are paying for hides here. Instead, Japan has erected tariff barriers and quota restrictions to keep foreign leather goods out.

"We're caught in a squeeze between those that don't allow their raw material out but sell here, and others that buy raw material here but won't let us sell to them," said Kilik.

American tanners have asked Robert Strauss, the President's special trade representative, to ask the Japanese to relax their import restrictions on tanned hides. Shoe manufacturers have asked the Commerce Department to do the same for shoes.

A spokesman for Strauss said yesterday that "bilateral discussions have been held at a very high level about the problem and will be continuing." The spokesman also said that a formal complaint has been filed under international trade law charging the Japanese with unjustifiable and unreasonable restriction of trade.

Japan has said it cannot relax its import restrictions on tanned hides and leather goods because to do so would put its tanning industry out of business. Japan's tanning industry is dominated by a particular minority group centered in the Dowa area which the Japanese say they must protect.