JUMP START Japan Comes to the Heartland By David Gelsanliter Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 262 pp. $19.95

THOSE WHO choose to believe that Japanese economic superiority is based upon nefarious management tactics or caricaturish ethnic traits may be forced to reevaluate their position when they read David Gelsanliter's Jump Start: Japan Comes to the Heartland. Curious about such orthodoxy, Gelsanliter visited his hometown of Marysville, Ohio, as well as Smyrna, Tenn., and Georgetown, Ky., to observe firsthand the effects of Japanese production methods on small-town America.

Using as backdrop the experiences of Honda, Nissan and Toyota as they negotiated for, set up and operated manufacturing facilities in these communities, Gelsanliter conducted hundreds of interviews with Japanese managers and American workers, with union officials, politicians and townspeople. From his discussions with everyone from Shige Yoshida, the head of Honda USA, to Owen Bieber, head of the United Auto Workers; from Gov. James Rhodes of Ohio to Gary Damesworth, a 27-year-old Nissan worker who, upon his return from a trip to Nissan headquarters in Japan, "got down on his knees and kissed the Tennessee dirt," emerges a devastatingly persuasive indictment of American management and labor practices.

It would be wrong, however, to look at Jump Start simply as a business book. Gelsanliter deftly transcends the genre and offers a slice of life that is noticeably absent from most such studies. There are no heroes or villains here, only real people, full of contradictions and foibles. Jump Start, though it is filled with information, does not neglect humor or pathos; the story is compelling in human terms.

We are introduced to UAW official Jim Turner, who conducts a doomed but courageous battle against colon cancer in an effort to stay alive long enough to organize Nissan. And to Susan Insley, the top-ranking woman at Honda, single and in her 40s, committed to her work, who observes: "When I graduated from high school, the commencement speaker concluded by saying, 'So God bless you, have an interesting life, and don't get married too soon.' I think I can say I have followed his advice. I have the feeling his advice has haunted my parents . . ." And to Marilyn Miller, a school board member in Bellefontaine, Ohio, and founder of that community's first friendship center, dedicated to the promotion of good relations between American women and the transplanted wives of Japanese auto executives. Among her pointers to the newly arrived: "Encourage your husband to come home before dark so he doesn't have to cut the grass by the beam of his car lights." BUT WHAT makes Jump Start so vital and, indeed, controversial, is its stunning rejection of everything Americans have come to associate with Detroit. In choosing their investment strategy, the Japanese turned away from cities and union strongholds. Instead, they sought homogeneous populations of mostly German and middle-European ancestry in rural middle America, many with a background in farming, who possessed strong family ties and a willingness to learn and perform many different tasks. In doing so, they built their factories in the very areas of the country where one would expect provincialism and anti-Japanese sentiment to run the highest. Indeed, in Smyrna, where Nissan set up a truck plant, the local Air Force base, the town's principal landmark, was named for a pilot killed in the Pacific in World War II.

Instead of the backlash that might have been expected as a result of small-town Americans being forced to take orders from Japanese superiors, or resentment over rigorous employment standards, the auto workers' response in Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky was to welcome not only the infusion of Japanese capital but also the Japanese methods. The Japanese motivated the individuals in these communities to take pride in their work, and encouraged them to participate fully in achieving company success. The result was that all three auto makers left Detroit at the starting block.

The UAW found a level of worker satisfaction at these plants that, ironically, caused consternation in its ranks. Attempts to unionize ended in failure and frustration. When it came time for an election at Nissan, 70 percent of the employees voted to reject the UAW.

One of the most telling statements came from a rank-and-file UAW organizer in Ohio charged with unionizing Honda. Commenting upon the company's effort to improve the quality of the workplace, he complained bitterly: "If something was wrong, and we said it was wrong, they {Honda's management} right away went out and corrected it. They had no pride."

Such a pronouncement may well cause people to wonder which institution, American union or Japanese automaker, has the real interests of the American worker at heart.

Nancy Goldstone is the author of "Trading Up: Surviving Success as a Woman Trader on Wall Street."