In the mid-1950s, a West German chemical firm, Chemie Gruenenthal, introduced a new sedative and licensed pharmaceutical houses in 20 countries to manufacture and sell it.

THe sedative was of course thalidomide, the drug that was catastrophically unsafe in pregnancy. Women who took it during the first trimester gave birth to about 8,000 babies without arms, without legs, or without lims altogether, not to mention other deformities. Vary few of these children are Americans, thanks to the refusal of Dr. Frances O. Kelsey of the Food and Drug Administration to let Richardson-Merrell Inc, sell the pills here.

In Japan, an estimated 1,000 thalidomide children were born. One is Takashi Arai, whose parents had been trying 10 years to have a son, and whose mother, wanting something to help her sleep while carrying him, brought thalidomide over the counter. After all, it had been advertised as completely safe, even in pregnancy, by all of the licensees, including Dai Nippon in Tokyo, which took 11 years to reach a money settlement with the families of the victims.

With the cooperation of the parents, Nippon Television Network chronicled Takashi's life, and theirs, from shortly after his birth in July 1962 to entry into junior high school in 1976. The resulting program, "Reach for Tomorrow: A Record of 4,745 Days," is an extraordinary achievement. The Public Broadcasting presents it tonight at 10 o'clock on channel 26. The narration is in English.

You may wonder whether you really want to see how a boy learns to cope when he is born with seal-like flippers instead of normal arms. You may recall the story of the Belgian woman who poison her thalidomide child, in circumstances so pitiable that a court acquitted her. You may suspect you will be depresses by it all.

Such thoughts misapprehend "Reach for Tomorrow." In Takashi you will see courage so pure and awesome that he becomes beautiful before your eyes. His mother and father chose a name for him that means "life is precious." They neither need nor want pity. In them you will see transcendent parental love - love that forced them to make severe demands of their son so that he would learn to live as if not handicapped.

Conditioned to seek no special privilege, he goes off to elementary school. Some children there "said I was a creature from another planet," he says through a translator. "Or, a little monster." He tried not to notice, although "I have sometimes suffered very much."

In the classroom, a half-dozen friends position themselves around Takashi to help them, if the need arises. But on the playground they would be suspicuous, so he prefers to take care of himself. Other children taunt him cruelly, until, finally, classmates rescue him. At home, however, there is laughter, love, security. You'd have to be made of stone not to be moved.

When he is nearly 13 he enters junior high school. He gets one of the standard uniforms. He tries to hook the collar. Three and a half hours later, he's still trying. Why not a zipper to replace the hooks? Or a pullover instead of the jacket? Because his father wants him to have no special treatment.

The jacket sleeves, of course, are too long. In a light-hearted way.Takashi tells his mother, who for fear of breaking down had not attended his elementary-school commencement. "It's your fault." You were careless with my birth." It isn't so and she knows it isn't. Yet there is palpable hurt, and you precieve it. It is but one of many poignant moments in a program that is a tribute to the human spirit.