More Americans are feeling guilty about buying foreign-made goods, especially those from Japan. But they're not willing to give up their Sonys and Toyotas unless American manufacturers provide superior alternatives.

Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a market research company based in Westport, Conn., asked 2,500 consumers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "I feel somewhat guilty when buying non-American made products generally."

In 1988, 44 percent agreed. The figure rose to 49 percent last year and to 51 percent this year. The increase follows a decade in which about 40 percent of those surveyed agreed.

"Something in the back of Americans' heads is saying that they do or ought to feel guilty," said Susan Hayward, senior vice president of Yankelovich.

The rising sense of unease may provide some justification for companies that have appealed in their advertising to Americans' sense of patriotism. Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, for example, appears in TV spots that favorably compare Chrysler's cars and minivans to those made in Japan, while a textile industry group called Crafted with Pride has a series of ads that encourages consumers to buy garments bearing the label "Made in the USA."

The survey results cheered at least one group, the Bethesda-based Made in the USA Foundation, which was established 18 months ago by a coalition of U.S. corporations and labor unions to promote American-made products here and abroad.

"We want Americans to feel guilty about buying foreign-made products," said Joel Joseph, chairman of the foundation. Joseph said the survey results reflect a realization that "America is being bought by foreign companies. People suddenly woke up and saw that the Rockefeller Center has been bought by the Japanese. Columbia {Pictures} was bought by Sony."

While guilt feelings about purchases of foreign goods may be rising, it does not appear that consumers automatically favor American manufacturers. A consistently high number of people -- 62 percent in this year's survey -- agreed with the statement, "It's not worth it for me to pay more for a product just because it is American-made."

"The message is that no one's going to bail out a crummy product" just because it was produced domestically, Hayward said.

Yankelovich also reported a similar rise in guilt feelings when it asked respondents how they felt about products made in specific countries. Half of those surveyed this year agreed that they "felt somewhat guilty" when buying products from Japan. In 1988, the figure was only 41 percent, and last year it was 44 percent.

The figures rose at a proportionately faster rate when the country in question was South Korea: 47 percent of those surveyed this year felt some sort of guilt compared with 38 percent two years ago.

Several Japanese companies with substantial operations in the United States said they were unfazed by the sentiments the survey indicated. In general, they said these feelings have not harmed their sales.

"I still think Americans prefer the highest-quality products at the best price and that is what we provide," said Don Spetner, a spokesman for Nissan Motor Corp.'s U.S. subsidiary.

Asked why Americans may feel guilty about their purchase of Japanese products, Mitsui & Co. (USA) Inc. spokesman Neil Friedman said, "I'm not sure they do, judging from their behavior. If they do ... it is probably a concern with the job situation -- the more unemployment we have in this country, the more people feel that it's because we're buying too much overseas and not buying in this country.

"In many cases, American companies themselves have decided to switch manufacturing overseas; the Japanese are not causing that," said Friedman, whose parent company is one of Japan's largest trading firms.

Hayward echoed his comment, suggesting that consumers perceive a link between their buying habits and their impact on the domestic economy. "I think the unease is driven by the Japanese being too involved in our economy," she said. "I think this is a jobs issue as much as a consumer issue."

The only nations to show a decline on the guilt scale were those in the former Soviet bloc. Negative feelings about products made in such nations as Poland, Hungary or the Soviet Union have dropped from 57 percent to 53 percent in the past three surveys. "I think we're seeing some evidence of forgiveness," Hayward said.

CONSUMER ATTITUDES TOWARD BUYING FOREIGN GOODS

I feel at least somewhat guilty when buying non-American-made products.

1988......44%

1989......49%

1990......51%

I feel at least somewhat guilty when buying products made in Japan.

1988......41%

1989......44%

1990......50%

I feel at least somewhat guilty when buying products made in Korea.

1988.......38%

1989.......41%

1990.......47%

I feel at least somewhat guilty when buying products made in Germany.

1988.......38%

1989.......37%

1990-......42%

I feel at least somewhat guilty when buying products made in Soviet bloc countries.

1988........57%

1989........58%

1990........53%

It's not worth it form me to pay more for a product just because it is American-made.

1988.......57%

1989.......55%

1990.......62%

SOURCE: Yankelovich Clancy Shulman Poll