"At international meetings," a Japanese official recently told me, "we feel that the Europeans don't really want to talk to us. Oh sure, they make the pro forma gestures--they have to. But the Europeans really only want to talk to the Americans."

This sums up a bitter feeling of resentment among Japanese, who feel that despite their country's tremendous post-war economic surge and a new willingness to accept a share of international burdens, Europeans treat them as second-class citizens.

They haven't forgotten that at the 1979 economic summit hosted by then-prime minister Masayoshi Ohira in Tokyo, they were excluded from two important meetings. One was a breakfast of the so-called "Guadaloupe Group"--leaders of the United States, France, Britain and West Germany who had met in the Caribbean earlier that year. The other was a secret meeting of the French, West German and American energy ministers to agree on oil import ceilings.

"We felt isolated," recalled a Japanese minister who was a participant at the Tokyo summit. "We didn't think it was right to hold such meetings without Japanese participation in the Japanese capital."

Turn that situation around, and visualize the French being left out of high-level meetings hosted by foreigners in Paris! Japanese video-tape recorders would then have to be customs-cleared, not through the inland village of Poitiers as they are now, but through Devil's Island.

To be sure, there is much more involved here than diplomatic niceties. At the root of the European-Japanese controversy are major trade problems, accentuated by serious recession in Europe. The European response to Japanese competition has been to close doors.

To combat import penetration of their markets by Japanese consumer electronic firms, European companies have desperately been seeking to form strong intra-European conglomerates, only to run into nationalist objections from major countries in the Common Market.

A projected alliance between the French state-owned Thomson-Brandt Co. and the Japanese Victor Co. to make video-tape recorders in France was assailed by Philips, the huge Dutch company. Philips complained that this deal is a blow to the European community, even though the product's European content will reach 75 percent, and provide desperately needed jobs in France. And so it goes.

An unusually frank assessment of how Japan feels about its relationships with its principal partners was recently given by Nobuhiko Ushiba, a veteran career diplomat who has served as ambassador to both the United States and Canada.

He cited history: after World War II, Japan wasn't accepted as part of the developed world, but treated as a defeated, developing country. It wasn't until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the United States--over some internal objections in Japan--drew the reviving country into the major international organizations like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Yet, despite Japan's inclusion in the GATT, Europe refused for a long time to grant most-favored nation treatment to Japan. But Japan grew strong economically despite European efforts to frustrate it. The private Trilateral Commmission in 1973 and the series of seven-nation summits starting in 1975 certified Japan as a developed nation, fully engaged in the international process.

What Ushiba points out, however, is that it is a long way from a chart that says "equal" to actual assimilation in the post-war international economic system. Bluntly, Ushiba made clear he wasn't sure that Japan ever would be accepted as a full partner.

Because of domestic political problems arising out of the recession, he said, "disagreements more readily become confrontations, and governments are more easily forced into taking unilateral actions." That brought him to the present-day Japanese-European conflict:

"It is from Europe that we now find the most serious attacks. The Common Market is charging that Japan's trading system is so strange, so unique, that the international GATT rules cannot be applied. Japan, they say, disproportionately benefits from tariff reductions and most-favored nation treatment."He pointed out that Europe and Japan, although sharing fundamental security interests in deterring Soviet aggression, have some different perceptions of world problems, as well as some real differences of interest. To name just one, "building up China can make sense in terms of diverting Soviet attention and forces away from Europe, but this raises tensions and increases Soviet forces in regions near Japan."

How can these serious problems be solved? It won't be easy, so long as the world economy stagnates and unemployment grows. Japan and America have left Europe far behind in developing and marketing technology. Like Europe and America, Japan succumbs to internal protectionist pressures from farm lobbies and certain other industries. As Ushiba implied, for all of the rhetoric about international cooperation, the "free world" really is not one big happy family.

But Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a politician of some skill, and certainly no shrinking violet, at least plans to try to break out of the junior-partner relationship at the Williamsburg summit. One can only wish him luck.