Led by the famous Jesuit St. Francis Xavier, a procession of Christian missionaries came to Japan in the second half of the 16th century, seeking to convert the Japanese to their religion.

This endeavor ended disastrously in the early 1600s. Japanese leaders -- seeing Christianity as a threat to their goal of a unified Japan and fearing that missionaries would be followed by military adventurers -- brutally surpressed the foreign Christians and their Japanese followers.

Today, another kind of Western missionary has gone to Tokyo -- U.S. trade negotiators, who are trying to convert Japanese bureaucrats to an American-style system of doing business.

The negotiations -- the most important of the U.S.-Japan postwar relationship -- center on the deregulation of Japan's powerful government telecommunications monopoly, Nippon Telephone & Telegraph (NTT), which becomes a private entity on April 1.

Because the breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. opened the U.S. telecommunications market to equipment suppliers from Japan and other foreign countries, U.S. suppliers now should have the same opportunities in Japan, American negotiators demand. For years, U.S. telecommunications companies and many other American producers have been systematically discriminated against by Japan's powerful bureaucratic regulators and this situation must be changed, with written guarantees, the U.S. side demands.

But despite intense efforts by U.S negotiators and what they regard as a good faith response by their counterparts, the negotiations are being resisted by the bureaucracy.

Clyde V. Prestowitz, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige's special counsel on Japan and a key U.S. negotiator, calls the negotiations "an historic event. We have gotten more deeply into the bowels of Japanese decision-making than any foreigners ever have before. Issue by issue, progress has been made in a number of significant areas. And yet we didn't get rid of regulation . . . .

"It's not honest to say they're a bunch of bastards. We also can't say the market is open," said Prestowitz. "The basic problem is the system . . . . the heart of the matter is, they can't reform their system. There is no due process, no independent appeal. As long as there is a bureaucrat with discretion, it becomes discriminatory."

To Americans, this system -- so contrary to the American style -- is manifestly unfair. But it is essential to understand the crucial differences between the two systems. Chalmers Johnson of the University of California notes that Japan's economic bureaucrats are among the nation's elite, emerging from the top 20 percent of Tokyo University's law school, the nation's most prestigious. "These men originate virtually all national policies, control the government budgets, retire early and move on to top positions in business and politics -- a process that is called 'amakudari,' or descent from heaven . . . .

"And they maintain legendary old-boy connections with each other during and after their period of public service," he said. Those connections will slowly, if ever, admit Americans to full membership.

Johnson quotes one of this country's leading legal experts on Japan, Dan Henderson of the University of Washington law school, who says terms such as 'competition,' 'private industry,' or 'free enterprise,' have little reality in that country. More apt phrases would be "collusive rivalry," and "semiprivate industry" -- labels that have no clear meaning to Americans.

The Japanese reaction to the growing trade crisis with the United States is bureaucratic and administrative: continued restraints on the number of Japanese cars entering this country (although at a higher level than before). The Reagan administration's response is: "We don't want restraints on Japanese exports, we want you to open your market to us. Play by our rules."

And Congress adds, "If you don't, we'll retaliate." Yesterday, Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) spoke of the growing congressional move toward retaliation against Japan, saying, "I hate to think that's what we're coming to . . . . An eye for an eye. But that's maybe the only language that's understood."

History suggests that the Japanese don't react well to foreigners telling them what's good for them, any more than Americans do. Somehow, in the tough negotiations that lie ahead, there needs to be a change in perspective.

The Japanese need to understand that, politically, the issue of "fair" access to their markets, however foreign a concept, has become a key test of their respect for the U.S.-Japanese relationship. They need to recognize that Japan's status as an economic superpower no longer justifies economic policies that promote exports above all else. New tax policies in Japan to encourage greater consumer spending on housing, home products, imported food and consumer products would expand opportunities for the U.S. and other exporting nations without decimating Japanese producers or the Japanese economy.

Americans need to stand in Japan's shoes for a minute and consider that their all-out emphasis on trade and their bureaucratic culture are as ingrained in their society as our notions of "fair play" and competition are in ours.

The administration and Congress need to pursue a tougher, more focused defense of American economic interests, without name-calling, without making Japan the scapegoat for U.S. failures to produce a healthier economic policy and without forgetting the long-term importance of the alliance between the two nations.