AGENTS OF INFLUENCE

By Pat Choate

Knopf. 295 pp. $22.95

RECENT SURVEYS show a sharp and sudden increase in anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States. The attitude is especially strong among white, affluent conservatives who feel that the diminished Soviet threat has been supplanted by the mounting challenge of Japan's economic might. This book mirrors the trend, and will almost certainly contribute to its acceleration.

The author, a former executive of TRW, a manufacturer of auto parts and defense equipment, mobilizes much solid evidence to make his case that Japanese corporations and government agencies exert excessive sway in Washington and elsewhere throughout America as they strive to promote their interests.

Choate denies that he is either a "Japan basher" or a "racist," the epithets usually pinned on their critics by the Japanese. But his narrative, which might have been balanced, credible reportage, frequently degenerates into a shrill, relentless polemic that comes perilously close to a cry of "yellow peril."

His thesis also seems to be flawed by a contradiction. Choate is alarmed, as the book jacket forewarns, by the extent to which Japan's lobbyists manipulate the U.S. political and economic system. He also faults America for allowing itself to be manipulated by the Japanese. It is not clear, though, where he places the principal blame.

"The declining civic virtue described in this book," he starts out, "reflects an American weakness . . . {and} is not the result of villainy by the Japanese or any other foreign interest." And he identifies 207 former U.S. officials who, he alleges, have violated their public trust by representing foreign firms and regimes in Washington.

His point is sound. One of Washington's more indecent features is the "revolving door," which permits White House staffers, members of Congress and other prominent figures, armed with valuable knowledge and contacts, to become foreign agents only a year after retirement.

Like many others have before him, Choate submits that the practice needs reform. But he disregards the fact that many more American enterprises retain former officials as lobbyists than do foreign firms. He maintains, however, that U.S. companies are "largely disengaged from their own government," and ought to exercise a bigger role in molding public opinion and shaping public policy. As it is, he asserts, their lack of dynamism has contributed to the creation of a "domestic political vacuum that the Japanese and other foreign interests gladly fill" -- with potentially dire consequences for "our national sovereignty."

So, if I follow his logic, Choate is troubled less by American influence peddling than by Japanese and other foreign intrusions into the system. There is a disturbingly xenophobic flavor to his argument. HIS DESCRIPTIONS of Japan's aggressive trade practices, though true, are equally one-sided. In 1988, for example, Toshiba succeeded through its lobbyists to escape punishment for selling restricted technology to the Soviet Union. The Japanese automobile manufacturers similarly organized their sympathizers in the Reagan administration and on Capitol Hill to win a ruling that revised tariffs on truck imports, and deprived the United States of more than $500 million in customs duties.

But these operations, while not exactly ethical, were at least within legal bounds. By contrast, the Japanese prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, was forced to resign some years ago after disclosures that he accepted bribes from Lockheed as part of a deal. Other U.S. companies have also bought off Japanese politicians in a culture where, as Choate notes, buying and selling influence are endemic.

Choate correctly observes, as have others in greater detail, that Japan's almost insurmountable barriers to outside trade account for much of the U.S. foreign trade deficit. He also emphasizes that Japanese factories in America are the answer to neither the trade deficit nor unemployment -- a subject that several specialists, among them Louis Kraar of Fortune, have studied exhaustively.

Kentucky, for instance, granted Toyota such generous tax incentives to build its automobile plant there that, in effect, the state's taxpayers are underwriting the jobs. Moreover, most of the parts that go into the cars come from Japan, which is no solution to America's surplus of imports.

Altogether, then, Choate's seems to suggest that the Japanese are beating America at its own game -- and must be stopped. The alternative, of course, is that America must learn to play the game better.

Choate left TRW in August amid stories that the firm's Japanese clients demanded his dismissal. His publisher, Knopf, promptly increased the first printing of his book to 50,000 in anticipation of controversial publicity -- which may portray him as a victim of the phenomenon he decries.

Stanley Karnow won the Pulitzer Prize for his book "In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines." He is now working on a book on the Asian presence in America.