SINCE THE REST of the world began to take notice 20 years ago, the remarkable economic growth of Japan has been heralded many times and, in recent years, often analyzed with a view toward application of its central features in other lands. If only the main ingredients could be identified, it was widely assumed, they could be adapted successfully by others even as Japan borrowed heavily in products and technology to create its boom.

In a remarkable feat of scholarly reporting, Chalmers Johnson has taken a close look at Japan's performance, and especially the role of the vaunted Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). Johnson argues from persuasive evidence that Japan is a very special case with attributes that cannot be readily transferred, including a 50-year history of perseverance which is little known or understood abroad.

Rather than the product of a transferable device or institution, according to Johnson, Japan's achievements are the result of "a tortuous learning and adaptation process" which started in the 1920s and included the disasters which flowed from the ill-fated search for growth through military domination in the 1930s.

As Johnson sees it, the underlying element of "the miracle" has been unrelenting determination to develop economically, which is an outgrowth of Japan's large population, lack of natural resources, late development and other factors. This determination has been channeled through institutions and practices that are uniquely Japanese.

A vitally important point, in Johnson's view, is that, "A state attempting to match the economic achievements of Japan must adopt the same priorities as Japan" -- that is, development first, over quality, welfare or other values. Beyond this, the key components of the Japanese "model" are described as the elite bureaucracy and the relatively free rein given it by other political institutions, "market conforming" methods of state intervention in the economy and, finally, an effective control agency for economic development -- that is, MITI. It is far from clear that the United States or other nations would wish to adopt much of this even if they could.

Johnson, professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley and a veteran Asia hand, has told the story with great insight and with a profusion of hard information acquired from Japanese source material. This book is a gold mine of detail about bureaucratic history and practice in Tokyo. For example, in discussing amakudari or "descent from heaven," by which high bureaucratic officials retire from government to high posts in private industry, Johnson tells not only how it works and why, but also provides a list of the top MITI bureaucrats of the past three decades and their "heavenly" positions after retirement.

For those who write, speak and argue about the Japanese performance and especially about Japan's experience with a government-guided market economy, this is a book which cannot be circumvented or ignored. Its evidence will have to be taken into account.

Precisely because it is such a detailed and well-documented account, however, MITI and the Japanese Miracle is not easy reading. Those without a considerable knowledge of Japan may find the core of the book difficult to follow, although these readers are likely to find much food for thought in the analytical chapters which begin and end the volume.

The recent election of Yasuhiro Nakasone, a former MITI minister, as prime minister of Japan, adds additional relevance and interest to the book. Nakasone was placed in his MITI post a decade ago and given a big boost to the premiership a few weeks ago by another former MITI top man, Kakuei Tanaka.

It is not the top political officials, however, but the strong and independent career bureaucrats below them who have played the crucial roles in the history and current reality of MITI. Chalmers Johnson makes this abundantly clear in a work which strips away much of the mystery from an economic success story of historic proportions.