"Made in Japan."

Perhaps that's the next sign that should be put up in the Sistine Chapel, especially after a recent Vatican press conference on efforts to clean Michelangelo's masterpiece.

For as modern Christian pilgrims file through today, for the first time they will see one-third of Michelangelo's frescoes completely cleaned and restored and looking practically the same as when the Renaissance master painted them around 1512. Gone are the layers of dirt, grime, glue, candle wax, fungus and sloppy retouchings that have for centuries dulled the original -- and we owe it all to Japan.

"In 1980," recalls Gianluigi Colalucci, chief of the 10-person restoration team, "Japanese television (NTV) came to our rescue. We needed funding for 12 years of careful cleaning of the Sistine frescoes, a very long time for corporate interest in anything, much less a single arts project.

"Happily," Colalucci says, "they were willing to make the commitment and we were able to accept."

In fact, the story is somewhat more complicated, as the Vatican turned first for help from traditional corporate givers in the West. Trouble quickly developed, however, over the issue of commercial rights. Could they advertise beer, tires or tennis balls, they wanted to know, using the Sistine Chapel?

The answer was no, of course, so another 30 companies were ultimately considered, according to Vatican sources. While U.S. network television was uninterested from the start, the Japanese TV company made an offer the Vatican couldn't refuse: It would film the cleaning process from start to finish with newly created cold lighting that wouldn't hurt the paint, and relinquish copyright to the film after three years, a gift to art historians and lovers now and for all time.

"It's a nice arrangement," Colalucci allows. "We have a three-person Japanese film crew on the scaffolding with us from 9 to 1 every day, and as we clean they record the process."

The exercise is by no means empty, either, as the restorers soon discovered cleaning the lunettes -- the lower frescoes depicting the 40 generations from Adam to Christ's birth. Removing the dirt, in fact, revealed important changes Michelangelo made in the process of painting -- different expressions tried and abandoned, unusual color schemes and much more -- before the plaster had dried. The restorers also learned for the first time that the master painted very quickly, without stencils or cartoons to sketch in his subject before painting.

"It fairly boggles the mind," Colalucci says, "to think that he could do a fresco the size of, say, a Chevrolet station wagon, in a single painting session without preliminary sketches. To do it with complete fidelity to all the colors, subject matter and lines surrounding the work, why, that's amazing, and deepens our appreciation of his artistic mastery."

At the press conference, Vatican officials also unveiled the next part of the operation, the cleaning of the ceiling itself, with a lightweight metal bridge for restorers to stand on. It's a direct copy of the wooden one Michelangelo invented for the job, even using the same holes sunk into the walls in 1509 to anchor the contraption.

With water, electricity and a portable toilet, however, it's a far cry from the wall-to-wall basketball court-sized planking Michelangelo laid down for the original three-year project. Covering only 20 percent of the ceiling, moreover, the bridge permits modern visitors below to see all of the area not being cleaned -- a must for the tourist-filled Vatican Museum.

"If what we found on the lunettes holds true for the ceiling," observes Colalucci, "they're going to see a Michelangelo no one could have dreamed of even a few years ago.

"The lunettes, after all, are calm depictions of Christ's ancestors, while the ceiling strives as no other painting has ever done to capture the majesty and mystery of God Himself and mankind's tempestuous part in the great scheme of things.

"Imagine," Colalucci continues, "what we'll find under the dirt covering 'Noah and the Flood' and the 'Tree of Life' scene in the Garden of Eden, and the famous Adam reaching out to God's hand. Until now the art world has called Michelangelo's paintings 'stony and dull.' How will these brilliant and vibrant colors work with the profound psychological compositions of the master as he wrestles with life's mysteries, we all wonder."

The answers must wait another four years as the newly installed bridge travels across the length of the ceiling toward the altar at the other end. After that, Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" fresco will be cleaned -- another four-year undertaking ending sometime in 1992.

Interestingly, the cleaning process itself is cause for the delay. Invented at the Vatican restoration labs about 15 years ago, it involves an ammonia and sodium carbonate solvent, called AB57, which is carefully applied and rinsed with a water-soaked sponge within three minutes of application. After a single coating, restorers must wait 24 hours to apply a second, third or more coats -- and dozens are required on the especially dirty sections.

On the new bridge with Colalucci's restorers, of course, will be the Japanese film crew, who are even learning and using Italian now instead of the English they spoke at the beginning of the project in 1980. And the film they send back to Tokyo doesn't sit idly in cans, either.

Already, NTV has produced two documentaries about the Sistine Chapel, one on Michelangelo last year and a new special on the famous ceiling that will be broadcast in Tokyo on Jan. 3.

Says Ikeda Kazuyuki, director of NTV planning and broadcast operations in Tokyo, "There's a whole world out there fascinated with Renaissance masters. We Japanese have a particular affinity for world culture, and a newly emerging interest in western, non-American art forms like the Italian Renaissance painters and sculptors."

In fact, beyond the prestige of helping restore the Sistine Chapel, NTV sees its relatively modest $3 million investment -- only a couple of minutes' worth of Super Bowl advertising time -- as a wedge to break into European, South American and even U.S. television markets, something it has not done before. Currently NTV negotiating teams are trying to interest PBS and the big network broadcasters in the Sistine Chapel and other films planned during the restorations, according to Kazuyuki.

Whether the sales take place or not, he says, the Japanese will derive at least one benefit from their farsighted investment: "Four hundred years later, we Japanese can see the original Michelangelo Sistine Chapel frescoes as they appeared when the master painted them.

"Nobody else can," Kazuyuki says in mild understatement. CAPTION: Picture 1, From the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's Junette with Asa-Josaphat-Ioram(left side, after restoration). Photo by the Vatican Museums; Picture 2, Gianluigi Colalucci standing before Michelangelo's "Last Judgement." Copyright (c) 1984, Raymond M. Lane