Japan must resolve to do better in its trade relationships with this country.

That's the blunt message being delivered by some of Japan's best friends in the outgoing Carter administration, who previously were sympathetic to Japanese complaints that they were being hounded for their success as capitalists, and have since been frustrated by the foot-dragging tactics that the Japanese have adopted.

Robert Hormats, the highly respected acting U.S. trade representative, said recently he was one of those being turned off by the Japanese tendency "to figure out just how little they can do -- and then do only that."

He feels that until the Japanese, "who profit from an open world trading system, are willing to take the responsibility for making that system work, the hostility to them will grow in this country." Reagan's negotiators, he predicts, will come to the same conclusion.

In a moving (and generally positive) personal reflection on Japanese-American relations in which he paid tribute to "those Japanese who taught me to love [that] country," Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke nonetheless said in a speech to the Japan Society in New York that the Japanese must do more than take down the remaining barriers to trade.

"They must change psychological attitudes toward foreign imports nurtured during the postwar reconstruction period and actively facilitate competition from abroad -- if they are to maintain that kind of access to the American market," he said.

Holbrooke argued that Japan is not merely a trading rival, but a strategic partner of the United States in the Pacific. Moreover, to preserve its oil lifeline, Japan is in no position to be neutral on the question of peace in the Persian Gulf. Thus, when the United States makes reasonable calls on Japan to open up its markets, "it is incumbent upon Japan to respond with imaginative and serious proposals that reflect the totally of our relationship, even if this means taking the heat from some special interests."

Reubin Askew, who last week resigned as Carter's trade representatives to go back to his Miami law practice, is equally firm in insisting that the Japanese show a greater sense of international responsibility. In an interview on his last day in office, the soft-spoken former Florida governor put it this way: "Japanese leaders will find that to try to continue upward mobility of their people through excessive penetration of other markets is risky."

Despite the fact that Askew and his negotiating team have found dealing with the Japanese a tedious art -- "Every concession is like pulling teeth," says Hormats -- Askew thinks Japan is moving in the right direction.

On the controversial and contentious auto-trade problem, Askew knows that Japan could have helped enormously by agreeing to buy more parts from the United States, and especially by certifying U.S.-made parts as replacements for the growing volume of Japanese cars on U.S. roads. But Japan has held parts imports to a trickle and has done nothing about allowing its auto dealers here to use U.S.-made parts in servicing operations.

Meanwhile, there have been some, if hard won, successess. New agreements have been reached which will increase U.S. exports of tobacco and lumber products to Japan. Askew has also brought to a conclusion the effort originally begun by his predecessor at the trade office, Robert S. Strauss, to get the Japanese to open up the Nippon Telephone and Telegraph company's procurement to American bidders. But Askew frankly concedes that U.S. industry and labor are skeptical "as to how much really will be in it for us."

U.S. high-technology producers -- among the world's most advanced -- except increasing competition in U.S. markets from very efficient Japanese producers of communications equipment and related machines. They think that some American penetration of NTT (the largest public telephone system in the world) is crucial to staying competitive.

Askew is pleased that on Dec. 26, 1980, the Japanese agreed -- after several years of bickering -- to lift restrictions that will allow data processing companies to sell more of their international time-sharing services in Japan. "The Japanese are getting better," Askew grinned, "but they've still got a long way to go."

The natural headline focus on the bilateral U.S.-Japanese problem, Askew believes, has had the unfortunate effect of obscuring the multilateral nature of trade. For example, the United States had a $9.9 billion trade deficit with Japan last year. But it also has a whopping $18.1 billion surplus with the European Economic Community, double the $9.3 billion surplus achieved in 1979.

"When we're looking at a surplus with Europe twice as large as our deficit with Japan," Askew said, "we must recognize that measures we insist on with one country may create precedents for our other partners to insist on."

What Askew is suggesting is that just as we demand "understanding" from Japan, we should expect to be "understanding" with Europe, on the wrong end of an even bigger deficit with us. The issue will come up forcefully this year in a number of ways in steel and chemicals, but especially on the question of textiles. There, Ronald Reagan will have to juggle protective promises he is said to have made to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) against the reasonable efforts of Europe to reduce its deficit with the United States.