ON THE JACKET of this book Edwin O. Reischauer, America's leading authority on Japan, calls Ronald Dore "England's leading authority on Japan." Japanese studies have been dominated, naturally enough, by Americans since their victory in war, but too often, I feel, I am being given the impression if not the bald statement that everything bad results from Japan's pre-democratic past. It certainly refreshes -- like slapping yourself on the back of the neck to stay awake -- to hear a British voice on the subject of Japan's past and present and to find that neither "MacArthur" nor "Occupation" appear in the index.

Dore, "a sober social scientist all his life," now a fellow of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex and fellow of the British Academy, originally set out to write "a bedside-reading, human-interest kind of book." He admits that "in the end I could not do it." And he did not. His own sociology ambushes him: facts darken the vividness they are meant to describe, anecdotes smack of case history material, and the professional jargon which covers the page like ivy on an old college building is, for someone like me, too thick to penetrate. The experience, the opinions and the conclusions are, of course, knowledgeable and therefore rewarding.

Shinohata is a tiny cluster of 60 houses, a hamlet really, about a hundred miles from Tokyo and where, for Shinohatans, the outside world begins "300 yards down the road." The author visited there in 1955 for six weeks in order to write a study on postwar land reform from the vantage point of a totally agricultural community. Over the next 10 years Dore returned twice for a period of several months in order to write other books in Shinohata's atmosphere of peace and quiet and friendliness. In the "late sixties" Dore decided to write this book, and he returned once again with that purpose in mind, armed with past diaries, notebooks and tape recordings.

Circularly, Dore touches every aspect of Shinohatan life -- how the people work, what they think and feel, why they get angry or drunk. He introduces us to Gontaro, the autocrat and only university graduate, Katsuo the village headman who resigned in pique, Norio the village "MacArthur" because he is a verbal bully, the silkworm workers, the fire brigadesmen, the school headmaster, and chiefly to the Yamamotos, Dore's hosts and owners of the local store, the only nonagricultural establishment in the Shinohata of 1955.

The essence of Shinohata lies in the changes Dore witnesses over the years. In 1955 Shinohata was a primitive rice farming community locked in the mountains near a volcano. Then only 17 families marketed more than $550 worth of agricultural produce a year. Now there is a factory which makes foodstuffs, a plant producing animal feeds, a structural steel fabrication yard, an electrical repair shop for centrifugal separators used in medical and chemical analysis, and nearby, a forestry-tourism road. The villagers are "better off." They have 24-inch color television sets, motor scooters, trucks, remodeled houses with tile bathrooms, formica cupboards, stainless steel sinks, electric heating units in their toilet seats, and instead of laboriously making all their own foods, they buy everything from soy sauce to out-of-season fruits in processed packages. In short, Shinohata dramatizes the statistics that from 1955 to 1974 the number of agricultural workers in Japan's total work force fell from 40 percent to 12 percent, while the average age of men engaged primarily in agriculture rose. By 1974, 30 percent of them were over 60 years old.

Shinohata's unhighlighted subtext interests me even more than the starch of progress. It is a relief to see the Japanese restored to their own rightful intelligence and foresight, and to be reminded that they had indeed pondered the place of women, the rights of labor, the correctness of education, and the need for land reform before light from the West shed its grace on defeated, occupied Japan.

Dore speaks of the postwar children who for a while under the Occupation learned nothing about either the unique superiority of Japan's ancient traditions or about the 20th-century pursuit of her national destiny through war. Then he writes: "Eventually the new textbooks appeared -- not quite the whiggish version intended by the Americans who wrote the guidelines, in terms of the gradual forward march of liberal democracy, but rather (for it was the dormant influences of Weimar Germany in the 1920s which surfaced to become the dominant trend among Japanese historians) a pop-Marxist version in terms of exploitation, class struggle, and the inevitable succession of feudalism, absolutism, capitalism and beyond."

In the epilogue, Dore addresses himself to the much vexed question of Japan's enormous present-day success. Surprisingly, he does not attribute Japan's triumph of industry to the industriousness of its people, obvious though it is that Japanese are less lazy, less willful than other less economically well-off nations. Instead he proposes the following: "Nor is it the increase in their own productivity which makes them so well off today, but rather the way the Japanese economic and political systems allow them to share in the great leaps in productivity made by industry. And the reason why those leaps have been possible in the last twenty years is because of the foundations laid in the 1890s and the 1900s."

To Dore, those ancient politicians voted for unborn generations. Their choices were not for immediate basic needs, nor in the individual terms of welfare economics. He then observes ironically that today's payoff is not what the old designers of the strategy intended. "They wanted to make Japan strong and powerful, a force to make the nations tremble. They succeeded only in making the Japanese comfortably well-off," he says. Ideas like these are indeed correctives, and well worth hearing again and again.