IN 1957, SOON AFTER THE SOVIETS simultaneously blasted Sputnik and American smugness into the same dark reaches of "outer space," I fulfilled a requirement for my high school English class by writing a short story about a fictional announcement on Radio Moscow. The Soviet Union, I wrote, had graduated a record number of garbage men. Although the United States was mystified by this development, it decided for Cold War reasons to respond in kind. Unlike with missiles, there would no "sanitation gap."

I wrote that short story (winner of no awards and still an unrecognized classic of its genre) because during the Cold War almost no cause could be advanced for its own sake. If competition with the Soviet Union could not be cited, then no one cared. After Sputnik went up, for instance, the American school curriculum was examined to see where we had gone wrong. Science had to be advanced -- not for its own sake and not, mind you, for any practical application that would improve the quality of life, but because we could not fall behind the Russians.

If, perchance, you were wondering who will fill the vacuum caused by the collapse of the old Evil Empire, you need only refer to the May 22 edition of the Wall Street Journal. There, on Page B1, was a dire account about the National Institutes of Health, a government institution beset by political and fiscal problems. The Journal then quoted Edward Schneider, a gerontologist at the University of Southern California, who explained why all the problems were especially bad: "This is happening at the worst time. The Japanese have targeted biomedical research because they know that the spinoff for pharmaceuticals is enormous. We don't have that many fields in which we are ahead of the Japanese and the West Europeans."

The canard is that scientists are a dreamy lot, out of touch with the real world and never giving a thought to what could be called marketing. But Schneider is proof that they are a canny bunch. He knows his customers. Rather than argue the value of medical research on its merits -- the saving of lives, for instance -- he appeals to our competitive spirit. Absent the Russians, we now have the Japanese and, to some extent, an entity called Western Europe, which is not England, Belgium or even France, but West Germany. Having won the Cold War, we now will fight World War II all over again, this time without guns.

No true, real American can fail to sense that Schneider has framed his message precisely right. In writing columns, for instance, I hesitate to say that more money ought to be spent on education (or welfare) because the life of an undereducated, poorly trained person is both arid and vacant. Instead, I say that these people will make lousy workers and that, as a nation, we will not be able to compete. It seems that enriching a life means nothing to us if, at the same time, it does not enrich us all as well.

Of course, Japan, West Germany and the country-of-the-week do pose an economic threat to the United States. And there is ample evidence that Japan occasionally does not play fair -- a problem and a real challenge made more than a bit worrisome when the American response is tinged with racial prejudice. Already publishers are readying a plethora of what are called "Japan-bashing" books. Some of them reflect the notion that America is pitted against a nation of drones. They don't have our values or our culture. In other words, as in World War II, they are not quite people.

The regrettable Japan-bashing aside, I welcome Japan as an enemy and suggest that now, with communism in remission, it has become our pace car, the standard we seem to need to get us to perform. For some reason, the United States is like a dog. Leave it alone, and it will hardly move. Give it something to chase, and it's off and running. It seems that Americans can't be urged to do something for the sake of the thing itself. It has to be a game, a competition -- like the one between two crews working on the first transcontinental railroad. More than a parade, we love a race.

So I, for one, welcome the so-called "Japanese threat." Without it, Americans would still be driving Detroit clunkers instead of the improved cars now on the market to meet the "Japanese threat." Rising to counter a threat, even if it hardly exists, is what energizes us. We need to compete, to win -- even though, as is sometimes the case, we don't know quite what we're winning. This is the way it was with the space program. By meeting the Soviet challenge, we were the first to put a man on the moon -- even though, to this day, I can't say why anyone wanted to go there. All we knew at the time -- all that really mattered to us -- was that if we didn't move fast, the Soviets would get to the moon first. And then . . . what? Spit down on us? It didn't matter. The moon today, the world tomorrow.

So come on, Japan. Challenge us. Build your better computers, but, please, challenge us also in medical research. Reduce everything in sight to the size of a Walkman and digitize the world, but continue to produce young people who are literate and industrious. Come on, Nippon, flood us with cars and video this or that. But also produce a better health-care system, better writers and violinists, a sense of community and loyalty to the organization -- especially by owners and managers who talk up the company and then sell it out from under the workers. Put up your dukes, Nippon. If America characteristically takes up the challenge, it can only win -- even if it loses.