It started with Deputy Trade Representative David Macdonald 2 1/2 weeks ago and rolled into high gear last Monday with Commerce Secretary Malcom Baldrige. By the end of the Thanksgiving week it appeared the Reagan administration had embarked on a concerted campaign of attacking Japan, its foremost Asian ally, for failing to live up to past agreements that would open its markets to more American goods.

Commerce Undersecretary Lionel H. Olmer, who left for Japan Friday, denied these attacks were orchestrated. Rather, he said, they represent "a mounting sense of frustration" within the administration at what is seen as Japanese intransigence on trade issues and the growing belief that Tokyo doesn't believe America is serious in demanding a fair shake in Japan's markets.

But some Washington trade lobbyists saw a domestic political side to the attacks on "Japan Inc.," with the Reagan administration trying to blunt the chance of passage in the lame duck session of Congress of highly protectionist local-content legislation aimed at Japanese cars by a rhetorical show of strength on the trade issue.

There is, furthermore, a view among trade analysts here that the nominally free-trade Reagan administration is reacting to growing protectionism within the Democratic Party, where liberals such as former vice president Walter F. Mondale have gained political points among labor audiences by talking tough about Japan.

Japanese imports increasingly are being blamed as a cause of America's soaring unemployment, especially in the auto industry, as organized labor, once a bastion of free trade, has turned protectionist. Beyond that largely emotional view of unemployment, administration economists have expressed concern over the increasing American trade deficit with Japan -- $18.1 billion last year, up 50 percent since 1980, and expected to swell to as much as $25 billion by the end of this year.

The widening trade gap, especially in manufactured goods such as cars and consumer electrical products allowed into America's relatively open markets, combined with Japanese restrictions on imports from the United States, led Olmer to express concern that the United States "could become a developing country in relation to Japan. We sell agricultural goods and raw materials and they ship manufactured goods to us.

"That's what I find intolerable," he said.

The United Auto Workers union has provided the major impetus for local-content legislation, and lobbyists here for Japanese auto manufacturers who are targets of the bill have warned their clients that increasing protectionism in Congress could mean House passage in the lame duck session, which starts Monday. The bill faces a harder time in the Senate.

House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) reportedly favors consideration of the local-content bill, which would require foreign auto companies to produce their cars with an increasing amount of American-made parts at U.S. plants, though it remains unclear whether the labor-sponsored legislation will come up because of the lame duck session's crowded agenda.

The UAW, nonetheless, has intensified its efforts in favor of the bill. Outgoing UAW President Douglas Frazier said passage in the lame duck session remains the union's major legislative goal.

While the newly elected House is more Democratic than the present one, with at least 34 of the 57 new Democrats beneficiaries of UAW campaign contributions, there are concerns among labor that the local-content bill could be stalled by an unsympathetic Ways and Means Committee.

If the bill reaches the floor next year, however, it is expected to receive greater support than it now has, with a majority of the House listed as cosponsors and unlikely to vote against it.

The bill is opposed strongly by the Reagan administration, which sees it as inviting retaliation in areas where the United States has a trade advantage, such as agriculture, and costing more jobs in other industries than it could ever preserve for the autoworkers.

There are indications, however, that the Reagan administration is looking to counter local-content legislation next year with a bill of its own if Japan doesn't move to open its markets.

McDonald, in a report to Congress, warned that the Japanese government is in "a race against time" to liberalize trade. Quick action is needed, he said, because "the constituency for free trade in the United States has almost totally eroded."

Baldrige said the administration is "getting tired" of fighting congressional support for local-content legislation and an "impetus is building" in favor of a less protectionist reciprocity bill sponsored by Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), who narrowly escaped defeat at the hands of a Democratic opponent with strong labor support.

"We are going to have to see major steps by the Japanese to open up markets if we are to have any success in countering protectionist trade legislation aimed at Japan," Baldrige said.

There is a growing perception in the administration that Japanese officials don't believe America is serious. But, said Baldrige, the Japanese are "mistaken in thinking the U.S. is going to be a paper tiger on trade."

Olmer said he was told by a Japanese public opinion analyst that businessmen there see no reason why Tokyo should liberalize trade restrictions and consider Washington's pleas "a hollow threat."

Japanese businessmen and diplomats here seem genuinely puzzled by the onslaught from labor and the Reagan administration. Both groups insist that American unemployment is due to the recession, not imports from Japan, which they say have decreased for cars and steel in the past year. Japan agreed two years ago to set a quota on auto exports to the United States of 1.68 million vehicles a year, and U.S. Trade Representative William E. Brock said he will ask that the quota be extended for a third year.

Japanese officials, who often blame American business' inability to compete in Japan's markets on failure to come up with the right product at the right price, expressed concern that statements like those of Macdonald and Baldrige make it appear that Japan alone is at fault. Americans such as Olmer, however, counter with examples of American products that they feel can compete but are blocked from the Japanese markets. These go beyond such agricultural staples as oranges, beef and tobacco to auto parts, aluminum baseball bats, and others.

The Japanese point to their country's own economic downturn, which so far has been much less severe than in the United States or Western Europe but still shocking for a country that has grown to expect a continuing boom, and to political pressures that prevent the lowering of trade barriers.

American officials retort that they understand the pressures on the Japanese government, but that Tokyo must understand the still stronger pressures on them.

It is unclear how the new Japanese government, which took office Friday, will respond to the current Reagan administration pressures on trade. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, however, has pledged to make one of his first acts improvement of relations with America in the two major divisive issues of trade and defense.

Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, by Jimmy Carter (Bantam, $22.50). The history of the Carter administration as written by its prime mover.

Years of Upheaval, by Henry Kissinger (Little, Brown, $24.95). The second volume of the diplomatist's memoir.

Bad Money, by L.J. Davis (St. Martin's, $12.95). The mysteries, and risks, of banking in Eurodollars. Popular Fiction

Family Trade, by James Carroll (Little, Brown, $14.95). Adventure and intrigue in a family of spies.

Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, by Len Deighton (Knopf, $14.95). World War II, in the air and in the bedroom.

Second Heaven, by Judith Guest (Viking, $14.95). A lawyer, a divorcee and a 16-year-old boy give strength to one another.

Someone Else's Money, by Michael M. Thomas. (Simon and Schuster, $14.95). The interlocking worlds of big money and high culture provide thrill and laughter.

Space, by James Michener (Random House, $17.95) Blasting off into the last frontier. Short Fiction

Beyond the Pale and Other Stories, by William Trevor (Viking, $12.95). Eleven splendid, skillful stories by the Anglo-Irish writer.

The Best-Loved Stories of Jesse Stuart (McGraw- Hill, $14.95). A selection from the hundreds of stories Stuart has written about the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky.

Levitations: Five Fictions, by Cynthia Ozick (Knopf, $11.50). Stunningly forceful, original and intelligent stories which mix the real and the magical.

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Farrar Straus Giroux, $19.95). Four dozen stories from the Nobel laureate.

Collected Stories, by V.S. Pritchett (Random House, $20). Twenty-nine stories from Sir Victor.

The Burning House, by Ann Beattie (Random House, $12.95). A new collection from the gifted chronicler of the children of John Cheever's characters. Bylines

Washington Post staff members published the following books in 1982:

Reagan, by Lou Cannon (Putnam, $18.95). A portrait of the president.

Washington: Houses of the Capital, photographs by Derry Moore; text by Henry Mitchell (Viking, $40). Upstairs, downstairs and all around the town.

Israel Now: Portrait of a Troubled Land, by Lawrence Meyer (Delacorte, $16.95). Charting the complexities of a nation.

Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin (Atheneum, $19.95). Which fork to use, which hat to wear.

Fool's Mercy, by Henry Allen (Houghton Mifflin, $12.95). A Washington thriller.

On the Air, by Tom Shales (Summit, $15.50). Bad-boy quips and other remarks from The Post's television critic.

Gilbert: A Comedy of Manners, by Judith Martin (Atheneum, $14.95). Up from Harvard.

Scientific Temperaments, by Philip Hilts (Simon and Schuster, $15.95). Three profiles of brilliant researchers.

How Life Imitates the World Series: An Inquiry into the Game, by Thomas Boswell (Doubleday, $14.95). A poetic look at baseball from one of its great chroniclers. Biography and Autobiography

The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. I: The Path to Power, by Robert A. Caro (Knopf, $19.95). How LBJ roared out of Texas.

Thomas Eakins,, by Lloyd Goodrich (Harvard, $60). The life and art, beautifully told and illustrated, of the 19th-century Philadelphia painter.

Last Stands: Notes From Memory, by Hilary Masters (Godine, $14.95). The poet Edgar Lee Masters' son pays loving tribute to his forebears.

Robert Lowell: A Biography, by Ian Hamilton (Random House, $19.95). A fascinating account of a writer hailed as America's best poet in his own time but whose life was clouded by mental illness.

James Joyce: New and Revised Edition, by Richard Ellmann (Oxford, $35). The definitive life of the author of Ulysses. One of the best literary biographies of this century.

Cain, by Roy Hoopes (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $25). A detailed life of the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Idemnity.

Mozart, by Wolfgang Hildesheimer (Farrar Straus Giroux, $22.50). Annals of a short but brilliant career.