Tom Satoh spends a good part of each week sitting by the phone in his tiny downtown Washington office waiting for America's high-tech manufacturers to discover Japan.

It's an assignment that requires patience.

Satoh expected things to be more lively when he abandoned his job as president of a technical translating service in Texas two years ago to become marketing director for the nation's only comprehensive directory of Japanese technical literature.

As a translator, Satoh -- a native of Japan with degrees in physics and architecture from American universities -- had noticed that U.S. corporations followed Japanese technical literature haphazardly, sometimes requesting costly cover-to-cover translations of worthless journals, and other times missing vital information that was readily available from well-known sources. Convinced that U.S. firms were in desperate need of a more systematic means of tracking Japanese high technology, he secured financial backing from Xerox Corp. and launched the Japan Technical Information Service, a directory service that provides English-language abstracts of articles from 600 of Japan's top high-tech publications.

Now published by a subsidiary of Bell & Howell Corp., the directory is cross-referenced by author, organization and subject, and can be accessed by computer. For an additional fee, Satoh's office provides English translations of any article listed in the directory.

But its business prospects are not so bright. Satoh won't reveal the number of subscribers the directory has, but he acknowledges that the response has been "disappointing."

"We're frustrated," he says. "We know this is a good product, but it will be terrible if we can't sustain our investment until U.S. companies see the light. We can't continue this indefinitely."

Satoh is not alone in his frustration. Many of the several hundred Americans who specialize in tracking technical Japanese literature said they are finding it tough to make a living in an industry that ought to be booming. The Japanese publish more than 10,000 technical journals each year. For the electronics industry alone, there are six daily newspapers. But while these publications contain a wealth of potentially valuable technical data, few U.S. firms can take advantage of them because 80 percent are published in Japanese, a language that the vast majority of American engineers cannot understand.

There currently are less than 400 competent technical Japanese translators in this country and by even the most generous estimates the pool is growing at a rate of only about five people per year. Still, American high-tech manufacturers' demand for these specialists remains sluggish despite two decades of rapid Japanese advances in semiconductors, data processing, robotics, ceramics and biotechnology.

"The issue is not the availability of qualified translators," complains Bruce Rubinger, research director at the Global Competitiveness Council in Cambridge, Mass. "The issue is the insularity of American industry."

Technical translators on the West Coast say that while business has picked up in the last two years, the reason is increased demand from Japan rather than the United States.

"Our best translators are now being aggressively recruited by Japanese companies," says Hannah Feneron, president of Leo Kanner Associates, a translation firm based in Redwood City, Calif.

Since the dramatic slide in the value of the dollar, Japanese firms have found it cheaper to pay native English speakers in the United States for translations for new product manuals and U.S. patent applications, Feneron said.

Cost may be one reason for American manufacturers' failure to research Japan's technical literature more thoroughly. Identifying, obtaining and translating a single 10-page article can cost as much as $1,000 -- more than twice the cost of translating from French or Spanish. Satoh's directory costs $5,500 a year, and using the service by computer costs $120 per hour of connection.

But translators say the potential gains from following Japan's high-tech journals far outweigh the expense, and they reject the contention that their services are too expensive.

New computer software may simplify technical translating somewhat. Automated Language Processing Systems of Provo, Utah, plans to release in three months a software package that will increase translator productivity.

But computers aren't likely to eliminate the need for translators altogether. "There's no way that anybody can translate effectively without some knowledge of both the target and the source language," said Walter Molden, marketing vice president. "There's just no getting around it."

The translation program will cost $8,000, on top of the $5,000 for a computer to use it, making it cost effective only for heavy users.

Impatient with the lack of activity in the private sector, some U.S. lawmakers are demanding that the federal government help offset the high costs of tracking and translating Japanese technical literature. "How can our businesses and scientists compete with the Japanese, if they have access to our best scientific and technical data while we lack vital information about their technology?" asks Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.). "That's the kind of business help government should provide."

In August, Congress passed a bill sponsored by Rockfeller and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) ordering the Commerce Department to spend $1 million to establish a special office to make Japanese technological literature more accessable in the United States.

The measure requires the Commerce Department to create a special office to translate technical data "critical to the development of U.S. industry" and to prepare an annual report describing important technical trends in Japan.

It has yet to have much impact. The Commerce Department opened the office two months ago and has assigned it only three employes. Although the legislation ordered Commerce to spend money on the project, it didn't enlarge the department's budget, so the office is operating on a budget of only $300,000 in funds shifted from other programs.

Barry Beringer, the Commerce Department's congressional liaison, points out that the department, through the Patent Office, National Bureau of Standards and Office of Naval Research, already spends more than $2 million a year on translating material from Japan. The problem, Beringer says, is not that the government spends too little on technical translation, but that its resources are poorly organized. "There's a perceived need for a greater effort," says Beringer, "but I'm not sure that perception is accurate."

Rockefeller disagrees. "We should be spending about $5 million on this," he says. "We should have a research office in Tokyo, of course. But also in Taiwan, Korea, Germany and probably Brazil."

Japan's trade ministry spends about $130 million annually to maintain a network of more than 70 research offices in 57 countries. The network, managed by an independent agency known as the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), tracks technical and commercial developments in more than 30 industries, preparing detailed monthly newsletters that are sent to companies in Japan. There are seven JETRO research centers in the United States, and together the offices employ more than 100 researchers.

Some caution that even if the U.S. government had an industrial research organization equal to JETRO, the service might go unused. Relatively few American firms, for example, use the National Technical Information Service, a mammoth international science and technology library administered by the Commerce Department. The service, which has more than 200,000 articles from Japan available for what it costs to print them, sells an average of 12 Japanese documents per year. The library's biggest subscribers are the Japanese and the Soviets.

Richard Skinner, president of semiconductor industry analyst Integrated Circuit Engineering Corp., argues that even when it's inexpensive, following Japanese literature isn't worth the trouble.

"There's still not a lot of innovation coming out of Japan. We're seeing better implementation, but I can't think of any new technology developed in Japan that I wish I'd known about a year ago," said Skinner.

But George Stalk, a vice president at the Boston Consulting Group and the coauthor of a book about Japanese companies, warns that dismissing the Japanese is dangerous. "Being an accomplished copier is the first step along the way to genuine creativity," says Stalk. "We're finding that in a variety of industries that copying is not the right word anymore -- the Japanese are on the cutting edge."