ANY AMERICAN businessmen, having closely en-countered the Japanese from the far side of the bargaining table, tend to view them, Frank Gibney notes, as "Martians temporarily locked out of their spaceships." Rather than as fellow Earthlings, we see the Japanese, often as not, as travelers from a distant planet where superhuman energies are released spewing out cars, robots, and electronic gadgetry at an alarming rate. Well, things do work a helluva lot better in their corner of the universe, we are told--productivity abounds, crime practically doesn't exist, and workers toil happily, if slavishly, under the gaze of benevolent bosses. And unlike E.T., the aliens from Planet Japan don't exactly seem to wish us well or want to share their secrets, or markets, with us. How in Heaven's name do they do it? How do we lesser creatures defend ourselves as the Japanese gobble up one key American industry after another? How, how, how?

Such star-gazing has contributed to the astronomical popularity of English-language books and articles on the Japanese--from studies of their eating habits (sushi and tofu, after all, are exotic sources of protein) to a hot-selling "Learn from Japan" genre offering up the ingredients of their management mystique. Alas, we are still pretty much stuck with our distorted, other-planetary stereotypes of the Japanese at a time when the United States and Japan appear to be charting a course toward a kind of economic Star Wars. The two books reviewed here, approaching the subject on sharply differing vectors, help bring our visions of corporate Japan into focus by providing provocative accounts of the fairly ordinary human qualities, the wit, hard work, and will that put it into orbit.

Both the United States and Japan, Gibney tells us, are "militant defenders of capitalism," possibly the only two countries where the word capitalism still has a mostly positive ring. What has made the difference, he explains, is that the Japanese have shrewdly figured people into their free enterprise equation in the "belief that long-term investment in people--which includes training them, partly educating them, and developing them within a company" is as important a form of capital as spending on factories and new technologies. Instead of treating workers as "interchangeable parts" and sacking them when times get tough, the Japanese have bolstered each worker's stake in his company by promising, wherever possible, career-long job security and a kind of cradle-to-grave cosseting that has removed much of the rancor that afflicts management-labor relations in the West. The Japanese, Gibney says, "have made the company a village. And in so doing they have not only given the worker a sense of belonging, they have also given the company a constituency that speaks up for it: its own workers."

In Japan's world of "people-centered capitalism," he explains, Japanese executives think of themselves as company-builders as much as profit-makers and shun the mega-salaries of their American counterparts. Corporate mergers and law suits are largely anathema and managers view their obligations to workers equally as important as those to shareholders. There is the strong influence of a centuries-long Confucian tradition that has kept alive respect for authority and education. There is a priority given to harmony in human relations and a web of mutual trust that helps bankers, businessmen, and bureaucrats override their conflicting interests and agree on long-term goals for the development of computers, telecommunications, and other new technologies viewed as vital to the national interest. What emerges is a comprehensive picture of Japan as an economic society which combines the best in central planning along the lines of a socialist state with intense free- market competition to invigorate the private sector.

Gibney is an engaging writer and has the advantage of practical business experience in Japan where, for nine years, he ran Encyclopedia Britannica's Tokyo subsidiary. And he makes a strong case for warning American managers away from trying to adopt piecemeal the quality control circles, seniority employment or other highly- touted facets of the Japanese "miracle" without first understanding the unique cultural and historical factors that have molded Japan's postwar institutions. Unfortunately, he is less persuasive when it comes to spelling out how the United States might profitably emulate the policies and practices of Japan's "communal capitalism." For example, his apparent prescription for a greatly strengthened Department of Commerce, trade and Technology "to spearhead government support of U.S. industry" seems largely impractical for a country lacking Japan's tradition of rule by a respected bureaucratic elite.

But these are small quibbles. Perhaps because Gibney admires the Japanese as much as he does he is good at pinpointing their frailties. They have yet to address adequately the problems of ensuring the future welfare of citizens in a society growing older, faster than any of its industrialized counterparts. Nor has Japan been required to take a true leadership role in global affairs or match its economic clout with commensurate responsibilities in defense or foreign aid. And while he explains the Japanese are trying hard to open their markets to more foreign imports, there remains a widespread inclination to preserve the country's narrowly-based system against liberalization which has helped them acquire a "not-of-this-earth" image. They "do not merely hide behind feelings of insularity and apartness," he notes. "They project an image of a nation society which continues to look contentedly upon itself, its historic smugness intensified by newly earned wealth." He points out that, in Japan, "the weights are finely poised" between "group tyranny and individual liberties"--"And under the pressures of a sudden catastrophe or crisis the balance could slip." The message is timely as protectionist pressure in the United States and Europe threatens to boil over into risky retaliatory sanctions against Japan.

The Kamata book, which is billed as the first slice of Japanese assembly-line life in English, takes up the dark side of Japan's high-compression, conformist society with a vengeance. The author, a free-lance journalist, chronicles the six months he spent as a temporary worker at a Toyota automobile plant in 1973. In diary style, Kamata depicts dreary, seemingly interminable days of toil during which, he says, "each man is beaten down and his pride broken in pieces" to meet production schedules arbitrarily accelerated by management. The conditions he describes--enforced overtime, numerous accidents that go unreported, and a company union more interested in appeasing management than sticking up for workers' rights--sounds like a recipe for a 20th-century version of oriental despotism. Following the tradition of a school of muckraking journalism which first flowered in Japan in the 1920s under the influence of newly-imported socialist thought, the account would be easy to pass off as a sort of political manifesto. Nevertheless, it does provide a rare glimpse inside a purely Japanese factory setting where, more than anything, workers' commitment to hard work and quality production shines through.

In an excellent introduction, British scholar Ronald Dore says that joining Toyota as a regular, "lifetime" worker is "more like joining the army in America than like going to work for General Motors." Workers get "posted" from one plant to another, leaves are cancelled on short notice, the dormitory supervisor routinely enters rooms for bedchecks. It is a world of little personal privacy where workers' biorhythms are monitored for their possible effect on productivity. Dore cautions, however, that the conditions Kamata describes at Toyota are not common to most Japanese workshops. He points out, too, that massive investments by Japanese firms in robots and automated factories in the last decade have now done away with a lot of the drudgery and tedium that Kamata records. In other words, efficiency has been vastly increased to the benefit, not at the expense of the Japanese worker.

True, Kamata's co-workers complain about being forced to work extra weekend shifts, but they do so good-naturedly and generally accept the longer hours as necessary to keep their company ahead of its rivals. And nothing appears to anger them so much as the thought that, in stepping up production, their bosses may be risking a compromise with product quality. Workers never question supervisors' personal dedication to the company or their right to wield authority. Dore stresses the impossibility of transplanting the kind of docile submissiveness displayed by Kamata's colleagues to the West, but he does suggest that the sense of workers belonging to a firm, and hence an abiding interest in the company's success, might be enhanced in the United States through the more widespread use of profit-sharing schemes and blue-collar involvement in management councils. If one is looking for lessons, perhaps one that could be safely drawn from these two books is that the factors behind Japan's economic challenge are vastly more complex than our many of our moonbeam notions about the Japanese would suggest.