The Japanese landed here 10 years ago, when they bought a controlling interest in a south Baltimore electrical factory. But it was only recently that they began to stress some "Japanese-style" management changes for their American-style work force.

Now this Japanese emphasis on promoting a "family" work atmosphere, while demanding increased production, has collided head-on with an entrenched and militant American union.

As a result, 400 workers are on strike at Locke Insulators Inc., Maryland's largest Japanese-owned company.

The strike represents a clash of corporate cultures. Japanese managers took over a struggling 90-year-old company, thinking it could thrive with new Japanese technology and concepts such as "quality circle" discussions between workers and bosses to foster harmony.

The Japanese encountered a cross section of working-class Americans -- the sons of West Virginia coal miners and southern black workers -- and their union, which opposes some Japanese concepts that it believes undermine unions.

The strike began Tuesday, when the union's three-year contract expired with unresolved differences over these issues and company proposals of lower pay for new hires, who would earn $6.49 per hour. The plant average is $9.40, and Nippon Gaishi Kaishya Ltd., which owns and operates Locke Insulators, is offering a 4 percent wage increase.

The confrontation comes to a head today as union members, following a threat by company officials to shut down the plant permanently, vote on a possible settlement that would concede the two major points to the company.

The union is being asked to agree to higher production standards and give up the right to strike during the contract, while retaining the right to use an impartial arbitrator to settle disputes.

Such encounters, reflecting sharply different attitudes about work and workers' rights, are becoming increasingly common as Japanese investment in the United States expands, experts say.

Japanese now own 450 American companies employing more than 125,000 workers, according to Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Japanese investment in the United States has grown to more than $14.8 billion, surpassing Canada and trailing only Britain and the Netherlands, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Most Japanese firms invest in new or nonunion facilities, often in less-unionized southern states.

But when they buy factories with established unions, "you have all the ingredients for conflict," said Robert E. Cole, a professor of business administration who directed the University of Michigan's Center for Japanese Studies.

"The road has been very bumpy" when Japanese take over an established work force, said Joji Arai, director of the Japan Productivity Center, a Japanese labor-management foundation in Washington.

"Japanese managers try to instill the esprit de corps they want. But it is hard to establish with people who have an independent-minded philosophy beforehand."

The root of the conflict, according to experts, is usually that American unions see management changes as eroding their rights, while Japanese companies are accustomed to dealing with more compliant labor unions and see American labor as threatening to thwart their formulas for improved productivity.

The company here, NGK, has imported $10 million worth of its technology and now wants to raise "production standards" -- the number of units a worker is expected to produce -- by 25 percent.

NGK also wants to eliminate the union's right to strike over unresolved grievances.

But such changes cut to the heart of the tradition of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, a 160,000-member union founded in the industrial battles of the 1930s.

The union insists that productivity standards must be formally negotiated. UE said it must retain its right to strike, as a curb on management -- even though it has not struck over grievances at Locke in 30 years.

At the center of the conflict is Masaharu (Mike) Shibata, 48, chairman and chief executive officer of Locke.

Shibata, like many Japanese executives, has worked for the same company throughout his 26-year career, feels intense loyalty to NGK, and wants to take decisive action to assure success for its "family."

"We have very low productivity here. Very loose standards compared to Japan," he said. "People who start work at 7 a.m. can finish their day's work by 1 or 1:30 and stand around smoking."

"If we are doing these kind of dumb things, we are going to die. This is why so many American companies are going under. This is a cancer," Shibata said, pounding his palm on a table.

Roughly half of Locke's workers have long been assigned standards they must meet, facing discipline if they fail and bonus payments if they succeed. Shibata would increase the bonuses for those who achieve the higher standards.

But he wants to adopt a new "scientific management" that sets production standards by measuring individual body movements in fractions of seconds.

This would replace a simpler "stopwatch" method of timing how long tasks should take, and UE believes the new timing method would be unfair to workers.

Union officials agree that productivity must improve, but the primary objection is that "Mr. Shibata wants to impose this, and wants us to agree to give up our right to negotiate this," said John Gay, president of UE Local 120. "We agree that there are production standards that need to be changed, but we must have a voice in it."

Company time studies often are flawed, UE contends, failing to account for the "fatigue factor" that comes from repeated handling of porcelain insulators measuring up to three feet in diameter and weighing up to a ton, for example.

Locke produces giant electrical insulators that are used for high-voltage power generation. NGK, the world's largest producer, bought the plant from General Electric Co. and, after a decade of losing money, turned its first profit -- $3 million -- in 1984, Shibata said.

He said negotiations are not needed on the new production standards because they have been discussed intermittently for years.

"I can not wait anymore, because this company is losing," Shibata said. " . . . Must I wait until we kill this company?"

Such attitudes are common in Japanese-American labor relations, said Duane Kujawa, professor of business administration at the University of Miami.

"The Japanese know a lot about statistical controls and methods of improving quality," Kujawa said, "and they don't like the idea of negotating over their technology with unions."

"I have tried to use Japanese family-style of managing, communicating with our people. I talk to all my employes, and I tell them my door is open . . . . It is a family," Shibata said, while pickets carrying an American flag marched ouside his office.

"Symbolically, they are always talking about 'one big family,' but in reality, it's the same old hard-line attitude we had from GE," said Gay, who has worked at Locke for 17 years.

Locke's work force of 500 is run by 20 Japanese corporate officials and technicians.

Shibata and his predecessor, Yukio Torii, attempted to break new ground by donning overalls and roaming the shop floor to discuss problems. Torii even dressed as Santa Claus for union Christmas parties, and Shibata had invited workers and their spouses to a dinner on Oct. 9 -- which has been canceled.

But while the Japanese top managers stressed family spirit, theforemen and midlevel managers are Americans, many left from the GE days, "and they have the same old attitude: 'Do what you're told and don't ask questions,' " said Charles Schultz, 47, a 20-year veteran at Locke who handles employe grievances as a union steward.

Authentic Japanese management style would involve daily worker-supervisor meetings, frequent family outings, and company-sponsored sports events, Arai said, whereas NGK and similar companies have "mixed-style" Japanese concepts overlaid on existing American customs.

In Japan, Shibata said, the conflict over production standards would not be an issue because most Japanese workers are salaried rather than hourly, and they receive yearly production bonuses as a group rather than individually.

"Our systems are very different," he said.

Shibata had planned to return to Japan this fall but has reconsidered, at least temporarily.

"I had a three-year target to turn a profit, and we did," he said.

"Our challenge was also to change the people. And if we fail, we simply go back to Japan and surrender."