BEFORE THE DAWN By Shimazaki Toson Translated from the Japanese By William E. Naff University of Hawaii Press. 798 pp. $30

IT IS the year 1860. Onto a pier in nouveau-riche San Francisco step 77 kimono-clad figures -- the first embassy ever sent from Japan to the United States. They are on their way to meet President Buchanan. Meanwhile, there s a stopover in California, and the new millionaires of San Francisco treat Lord Shimmi Buzen-no-Kami Masaoki and his party royally. Tell us anything you want, they urge. We ll get it.

The samurai confer among themselves. Then they make a request that astounds the millionaires -- even stuns them. Offered anything California can provide, they ask if it would be possible to meet a descendant of George Washington.

That story encapsulates one of the enormous differences between Japan and the United States in the mid-19th century, and it suggests one of the reasons why only a perceptive American reader will be able to enjoy Shimazaki Toson s classic novel Before the Dawn.

And yet, those who like this huge historical novel will like it a lot. It really is a classic. It began to be recognized as one during the six-year period from 1929 to 1935 when it was being serialized in a Tokyo magazine. That recognition continued. At last count, something like 134 Japanese scholars have published critical books about it, and it has been the subject of 700 or so magazine articles.

Before the Dawn tells the story of the famous "opening of Japan" that began with Commodore Perry s fleet arriving in Tokyo Bay in 1853. From the American point of view, the story is a simple one. Japan was a backward, feudal country, ruled by the shogun and his armor-clad knights. It deliberately avoided contact with the West. In came the U.S. Navy, forcing that contact -- and in a twinkling Japan turned into a modern industrial power.

But from the Japanese point of view the story is infinitely more complex, and Before the Dawn attempts to render every nuance: the religious upheaval, the cultural complications, the divided loyalties. And the introduction of railroads and beef-eating and European-style mathematics, too, of course.

The point of view in the novel is an unusual but very effective one. The main character, Aoyama Hanzo, is far from the centers of power, though he is at the center of this own small world. To explain that world will take a minute. In the days of the shogunate (which lasted well after Perry s arrival), Japan was divided into about 300 fiefdoms called han, each ruled by a hereditary family of daimyo. One of the ways the shogun kept control of 300 willful lords was to require them to live alternately in their territories and in the shogunate capital of Edo (now called Tokyo). They were constantly moving back and forth with vast processions of their followers.

That in turn required a series of national roads, and on the roads many villages with official daimyo inns. Before the Dawn opens in a mountain village on the Kiso road. For 16 generations the Aoyama family have bossed the village of Magome, maintained a section of snowy highway, kept the official inn. They have complete records of every transaction since the year 1600. They consult them often.

We meet Hanzo, 17th headman of Magome, when he is 22. Perry has just arrived, far away on the coast. Change is in the wind, but has not really begun. The daimyo are coming down the road as always -- there is one particularly busy day when the village has to provide porters, packhorses and lunch for 1,550 soldiers. The book ends with Hanzo s death in 1886. By then the han itself no longer exists, Buddhism has been disestablished, there have been three civil wars and an English railroad surveyor is strolling up the Kisco road.

It is not a happy story of progress. Hanzo dies a bitterly disillusioned man. He had been an idealist, a disciple of the group called National Scholars, who had hoped to see Japan purified and made wise, not merely westernized. All the great events of the Meiji era are here, including many that Hanzo did not witness. (Though he does, after his three hereditary jobs have been abolished, live in Tokyo for a time, work in the new Ministry of Religion, see a lot.) And these great events are nearly all reflected in the small events of Magome village and in the life of the Aoyama family.

This linking works brilliantly. A whole era comes alive, in its broad movements and in its homely details. No other book known to me captures the feel of the Meiji period even nearly so well. Worth capturing, too: It was the time of the most intense and rapid change there has ever been in the long, long history of Japan.

And yet, for an American reader who is not already familiar with Japanese culture, there are several problems. One if the sheer alienness of so many names and so many concepts. That problem is soluble, and the solution is patience. It takes probably about 200 pages to be able to distinguish among female characters named Otami, Otomi, Okume, Osume -- and to remember that Owari is not a fifth woman, but one of the great han. But the effort is worth it, and for the remaining 600 pages one is living Japanese life from the inside.

Another problem for American readers is likely to be the intense traditionalism, the tight hold to the past. The same impulse that leads present-day Japanese to take so many photographs led their ancestors to record everything, and then to remember it forever. One of the rebellions in the book begins with cutting off the head of a man who died in 1358 -- or, rather, the head of an ancient wooden statue of him. But again, one gets used to this historicity; and the reward the reader eventually earns is to find himself or herself in a landscape and a culture more charged with meaning than our own has ever dreamt of being.

Finally, there is a great deal more understatement than Americans are used to in their fiction. Imagine a Japanese garden of the sort that is mostly raked sand, with one rock standing for a mountain landscape and one bonsai for a forest, and you will get an idea of some of the compressed scenes in Before the Dawn. A hostile critic might say the under-dramatized scenes.

All that granted, Shimazaki wrote a novel of extraordinary power, and William Naff has produced a translation worth of it. My one complaint is that though Naff provides a long, useful introduction and a still more useful (and very readable) glossary, there remains too much unglossed. Take the Magome villager named Kyudayu. You learn that he s "fiercely proud" of being one of two people in the whole region "to have a name with the elegant enfing of

-dayu. " But elegant how? The western reader has no clue what "-dayu" signifies -- whether it s like three initials in England, or "von" in Germany, or what.

No matter. These are minor complaints. Even a person like myself, who generally prefers his novels short, found himself wishing that Shimazaki had not stopped with Hanzo s death in 1886 but could somehow have taken another 2,000 pages and brought the Aoyamas (and Japan) right up to 1987. Which is to say, Before the Dawn is a true epic.

Noel Perrin teaches literature at Dartmouth College.