Strip Japan's homes and bathhouses of Schick razor blades and you soon would have a nation of bearded men.

After a Toyota sales trainee lathers up in the morning, he'll probably shave with an American-made Schick blade. When a construction laborer shaves at day's end in a public bath, chances are good he'll use a Schick he bought at the door.

The brand first came to Japan in 1961. Today it is sold in an estimated 120,000 shops and supermarkets across the country. It accounts for 70 percent of the annual $150 to $200 million in blade retail sales here and has driven its once-dominant Japanese rival into obscurity.

"Of course I buy Schick," said Masato Watanabe, 23, after picking up a package of blades in a Tokyo discount store.

Schick is visible everywhere. It sponsors a Tokyo-Osaka football match. This spring it passed out 100,000 sample shaving kits to college freshmen. It is pitched on national television and on the back covers of mass-circulation magazines.

"Once you've got the brand strength, it's hard to dislodge you," says Sam J. Maugeri, president of the Japanese subsidiary of the health care and consumer product conglomerate Warner Lambert, which took over Schick in 1971. "We've got it, and I think we'll keep it."

Recent trade tensions between the United States and Japan appear to have reinforced a common American belief that Japan is closed to foreign products. Spectacular stories like Schick's prove that is not true. But they also prove that success demands a mix of perseverance, luck and product appeal that most foreign companies never will muster.

Japan was a natural target for foreign blade makers after World War II. The Japanese, inventors of the hot bath, had a legendary love of smooth faces and, by Asian standards, thick beards. But until the early 1960s, the market was kept closed. Bureaucrats wanted to conserve foreign exchange and protect domestic producers.

Schick and the world leader, Gillette, jumped in as soon as the formal barriers went down. The company to beat was Feather, a Japanese producer with 80 percent of the market and no plans to give it up. Feather, as many Japanese consumers knew, was based in the town of Seki, famed since feudal times for the production of sharp blades, samurai swords in the old days.

Schick's first smart decision was placing its bets on its newly developed injector razor and ignoring the double-edged blades that were the norm at the time. Japan's gadget-loving male population quickly warmed to the new product and sales soared.

Feather and Gillette soon saw their mistake and began switching over. But the damage had been done. Schick had established itself in the market. By 1965, it controlled about 5 percent of national sales and was growing fast.

Schick's people say that, in the mid-60s, it managed to repeat that coup by being first in Japan to mass-market stainless steel blades, which have since become the industry standard. They say Schick did it again in 1972 by bringing the first twin-blade cartridges to Japanese shavers.

Schick recounts that story with particular satisfaction. Word had leaked of the date on which Gillette would unveil its "G-2" cartridge, they say. Schick rushed in an air shipment of its version, the "Super-II," slapped them into Japanese packaging in two days, and got them to the market a week ahead of Gillette. (Gillette people say their memory is that they got there first.)

Schick's share of the market reached 25 percent in 1970 and rose to 60 percent by 1975, its surveys show. Today, it cruises in the seventies. Everything is imported. (Japan, however, gets in on the business by shipping to the United States all the steel used in the blades.)

Feather's fortunes, meanwhile, showed a parallel decline, plunging to the 10 percent range a decade ago, where it remains, according to Schick's figures. Many young Japanese today have never heard of the brand.

Schick distributors say the domestic industry complained when the foreign brands first were allowed in, but since then never have tried to bring political pressure to control the flood. A small tariff remains in force, however.

Import liberalization and timely introduction of new products were important in Schick's success. But its approach to marketing and the byzantine world of Japanese distribution also seem to rate a good portion of credit.

From the start, Schick left the job largely to the Japanese. It signed up an import agent, Hattori Seiko, the producer of Seiko watches, when it first came and remains with it today. Hattori sells to a sales agent, who sells to large-scale wholesalers, who sell to local wholesalers, who sell to retailers, who finally sell to the man with the beard.

Stability is the Japanese businessman's most treasured commodity. "We've had a long, long relationship with Schick," said Yasuoki Takeuchi, president of Sanpo Shoji Co., the sales agent. "We love it even more than the Warner Lambert people do. In some ways, we feel we are the parents of Schick."

Schick listened to Japanese advice. When it first came to this country, American planners wanted to start with the double-edged blades that everyone was using. But the Japanese argued no. People will flock to the injector and it will give Schick a special identity, they said. It did.

Japanese consumers favor locally made TVs and cars but are often suckers for foreign clothes and toiletries, in the belief that they label one as cosmopolitan. Schick recognized that early on, too, with the slogan "Schick -- Born in the U.S.A." Today, its racks in local stores sometimes bear tiny American flags to get the point across.

Big time and money was spent on promotion. When Schick finally decided to sell double-edged blades in the mid-60s, it mass-mailed gift ones to 3.5 million Japanese homes, a sales strategy unheard of at the time. Advertising remains pervasive today.

It worked with owners of public bathhouses to sell blades there. It worked with operators of pachinko, a pinball-type game which is found in any commercial block of any size here, to stock Schick products as prizes for winning players.

Several years ago, the head of Warner Lambert's local subsidiary paid a call on a temple in Tokyo which by tradition is a final resting place for cutting tools -- old scissors, garden shears, etc. He came, of course, with a razor blade, which was deposited with ceremony and a bid for publicity.

All of this helped crush Feather and Gillette, which has continued to dominate the $600-million-a-year "wet shave" market in the United States. Gillette managed a 17 percent market share in Japan in 1971, but today has fallen back to the 10-percent-plus range, Schick surveys show.

But Schick's people here claim that Gillette's fate was due largely to what they call an ill-considered bid to short-circuit the Japanese distribution network. Gillette started with a Japanese import agent, but in 1968 broke off with it, established a wholly owned subsidiary, Gillette (Japan), and began dealing directly with 150 wholesalers.

In 1974, Gillette shifted gears again, this time cutting its distributors back to the vicinity of 30. That system remains in place today. There also have been frequent changes of management at the Japanese subsidiary.

Some Japanese in the business see it as classic American arrogance, the suspension of a long-term relationship with an eye to short-term gain.

"Gillette saw Japan as a colony," said Kinzo Takeuchi, owner of Sanpo Shoji. "It wanted to sell its products by force, which did not fit the Japanese system . . . . Our philosophy is that everyone in the distribution chain, from top to bottom, should co-exist."

It all happened more than a decade ago, but Takeuchi talks like it was yesterday. His words count -- his company handles about seven of every 10 blades sold in Japan, foreign and domestic, including Gillette's.

Hiroshi Akao, general manager of Gillette (Japan) says his company was merely following standard strategy. "Gillette's basic policy all over the world is to do it themselves," he said. Gillette has met no discrimination from Japanese distributors since then, he said. It has honored Japanese traditions by "using wholesalers and keeping good relations with them."

He suggested that the most important reason for Schick's success is its pioneering of new products here, rather than its different distribution system.

With the present firmly in hand, Schick is now looking to the future. Masao Sasaki of Hattori Seiko said "our major problem is how to compete with those dry people," the companies selling electric, or "dry," razors.

Marketing studies show that about 60 percent of all Japanese men own an electric razor. Gadget-mania, a shortage of bathrooms and the need for the cities' legions of harried white-collar workers to shave on the run have figured in that success.

Schick continues to promote foam and razor as the satisfying, sensible way to shave. College freshmen are an important target. "Who will catch young people before a habit is established is the key," said Yutaka Saito of Warner Lambert.