Ford Motor Co. yesterday asked the International Trade Commission to impose sharp limits on Japanese auto imports, charging Japan with launching an import campaign "without apparent concern for the serious injury being caused to auto employment and investment in the United States."

Ford's petition to the ITC follows a similar petition filed in June by the United Auto Workers and is likely to intensify pressure on Japan to restrain auto shipments to the United States, particularly when the new line of American autos goes into production next month.

The ITC, a U.S. government agency, is investigating the impact of Japanese auto imports on the American auto industry. Before it can recommend sanctions, it must conclude that imports are the principal reason for the current depression in the auto industry, which has left 40 percent of U.S. autoworkers unemployed and more than 900 auto dealers bankrupt, according to industry estimates. Led by Chrysler Corp., the four major American auto manufacturers have lost nearly $2 billion in the first six months of this year.

The case before the ITC is expected to turn on a judgment of whether the damage to the U.S. manufacturers was also due in large part to high interest rates this spring and the recession in the economy or to management errors in the American companies, according to congressional trade experts. If these factors also are given heavy weight by the ITC, it could reject the UAW-Ford petition.

Ford asked the ITC to impose a temporary import allocation among all exporting countries based on their share of the imported car and light truck market during the 1974-76 period.

The limit, if imposed, would permit importation of 1.7 million cars and 260,000 light trucks from all countries, including Japan, Ford said. During 1974-76, imports from all countries accounted for 16 percent of U.S. car sales, with Japan getting 52 percent of the total.

This year, imported autos claimed more than a quarter of the U.S. market, led by Japanese manufacturers who had nearly 80 percent of total.

In the past two months, Japanese auto manufacturers have accounted for about 22 percent of cars sold in the United States.

The spurt in sales of Toyotas, Datsuns and Hondas -- the leading Japanese imports -- has fueled growing criticism of the Japanese within the U.S. industry.

"So far this year, Japanese car and truck exports to the United States are up 32 percent while U.S. production is down more than 35 percent," Ford said in its complaint.

"Time has run out for painless solutions," Ford said in a statement. "Ford would prefer that the Japanese government take voluntary steps to reduce exports but they have not done so," Ford contended. Furthermore, the administration repeatedly has stated it lacks the power to negotiate or even discuss an automotive agreement with Japan without an affirmative ruling from the ITC, Ford added.

If the ITC rules in favor of the UAW and Ford, it would propose a remedy -- tariffs or quotas on Japanese imports -- or a recommendation that the United States and Japan negotiate a voluntary limit on imports.

This recommendation would go to President Carter for a final decision.

The Japanese government said yesterday in Tokyo that it would not restrict auto exports to the United States, which increased 13 percent in July over July 1979.

Carter last month formally asked the ITC to accelerate its fact-finding on the UAW complaint, citing the need for a prompt decision because of the severe economic plight of the American industry. The president said his request did not prejudge the facts in the case.

His intervention was seen by various observers as either a bid for political backing from the UAW, a gesture of support for the beleaguered U.S. industry or both.

However, the ITC declined to speed up its inquiry, and its decision is not expected until the second week in November, a week after the presidential election.

In charging Japan with mounting an import campaign against the United States, Ford repeated its complaint tht Japanese auto plants have been running on overtime to fill the demands in the U.S. and other overseas markets, causing a slump in this country that has put more than two of every five autoworkers out of work. There has not been an appreciable increase in imports from other countries, Ford noted.

Despite the Carter administration's recent efforts to aid American auto manufacturers, top administration officials have been divided on how much Japan should be blamed for the current troubles of American producers. Some officials contend that Japan has merely supplied the kinds of cars that American motorists want in increasing numbers.