In the 1950s, when Japan was just beginning its phenomenal economic progress, the American way of doing business was thought to be the best way and one concept which Japanese entrepreneurs seized upon was something called "quality control."

Make the products uniformly superior, the Japanese learned in Cleveland and Detroit and Los Angeles, and the world will be your customer.

Now it is the Japanese who are recognized as experts in quality control, having added their own touches to the process, and it's not uncommon to hear them putting down their former tutors. "You hear a lot today about the shoddiness of American products, of American workmanship not being any too good," observes a foundation executive here. "Particularly among the elites. They like to say that Americans have caught the 'British Disease.'"

A lot of American businessmen would dispute that contention, but its widespread circulation is evidence of a trend that could be called the de-Americanization of Japan. It is a slow and gradual process, coming from many sources, economic, military and cultural. American influence is still the dominant foreign influence in Japan in all those filds, but the degree of dominance is lessening. The United States is still number one but no longer the only one.

American movies, popular music and slang are widely admired. But the preferred footwear for sports are Adidas and Puma. The most sought-after fashion labels are those of Pierre Cardin and Yves St. Laurent and Japan's own Hanae Mori. Japanese travel tours still fly off to Honolulu and Los Angeles and New York but the really fashionable places to have been are France and Italy and Switzerland.

The point is that Japan has, in the past decade or so, found many models to follow, many markets to sell to, and its dependence on the United States is slackening in many ways. It is less dependent on American technology.

Mitsubishi still sends bright young men to study at the Harvard Business School, but American business systems in general are no longer considered essential. Japanese companies which once used American multinationals to represent them around the world are now themselves multinationals.

"There was a time when our trading companies would have only one office overseas -- in New York," recalls Masaya Miyoshi, direcor of the international economic affairs department of Japan's powerful Federation of Economic Organizations. "Now they are all over the world. Our banks used to have branches only in New York and London. Now they are all over the world, too."

Much of the sporadic debate in Japan over rearmament in the past year has been prompted by an underlying assumption that the United States is not as trustworthy military as before. The defeat in Vietnam and the withdrawal of ground forces from South Korea are cited as evidence that, despite its claims to the contrary, the U.S. does not want to be an Asian power any longer and that Japan must fill the gap herself. Cues From Germany

YET IT IS too strong to say that the de-Americanization flows from distrust to hostility, although elements of both crop up occasionally. It's more accurate to say that Japan is simply becoming international-minded, more eager to sample and trade with other countries, and the American influence correspondingly diminishes.

"We have become much more selective about what we appreciate," ovserves Tadashi Yamamoto, director of the Japan Center for International Exchange, which arranges cultural and political dialogues abroad.

"You can see it in our exchanges.Once they were almost exclusively exchanges with Americans. Now they are with Koreans, Europeans and others. We feel that we are a much more independent nation today and that the issues are global, not just between the United States and Japan."

The United States is still Japan's most important trading partner and most likely will continue to be for years, despite the seemingly interminable arguments over Japan's large trade surpluses. But while the disputes focus on Japan's exports to the United States, something strange has been happening to trade moving the other way. Japan is buying less, proportionately, from the United States today than she used to, in comparision with imports from other countries.

In a Foreign Affairs article last fall that was widely discussed here, two economists from the Boston Consulting Group, James C. Abegglen and Thomas M. Hout, showed how the American share of the Japanese market has declined since the late 1960s. The U.S. share of the capital goods market declined from 32 to 13 percent. In 1968-70, American coal producers sold nearly 60 percent of the coal imported into Japan. By 1976-77, their sales came to only 32 percent.

Europe and Southeas Asia and even Latin America are now looming as major competitors with the Americans. And now China will move forcefully into the picture. Already, the American share of the total two-way trade with Japan is falling. In 1970, American businessmen had 30 percent of that total trade; by 1976 it had fallen to only 21 percent.

"There's question, there has been a change in Japan's attitudes toward the United States," Abegglen said in a recent interview. "The United States had been the only point of reference once. Now they tend to measure themselves by what Germany does. Japan takes many of its cues now from Germany. They think Germany's performance on inflation, for example, has been pretty good and they don't think that of the United States.

"Japan's perception now is that in many cases what the United States has done has been damaging to its interests. There were the 'Nixon shocks' and the battles over trade and the refusal to sell them oil from Alaska. Rightly or wrongly, they feel these were slaps in the face. There is more distance between the two countries now than there was in the Sixties." Less Subservience

PRESERVING the close Japan-U.S. political relationship is still the number one pledge of most aspiring Japanese politicians, and being able to "manage" that relationship is still a major test of any prime minister. But Japan today is less subservient to American interests than it once was politically, less inclined to grant automatic assurances of its faithfulness.

There are signs in these first few days of Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira's administration that Japan is beginning to dig in its heels on the trade issue, for example. With protectionist moves mounting in the U.S. Congress, officials here realize Japan will be under pressure to make some new concessions, as it has in the past involving exports of autos, steel, textiles and color television sets.

Former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, when similarly pressed, went around making extravagant promises about spurring economic growth to 7 per cent and sharply cutting back the trade surplus. He came close to neither, as it turned out, but he had made the traditional noises thought necessary to placate the Americans. The attitude now seems to be different. No big promises are made and Japanese officials seem to be saying that their country has given enough in the past and that the troubles this time are due more to American misunderstandings than to Japanese excesses.

In a number of little ways, too, the decline of the American dollar has contributed to the de-Americanization of Japan. It is not a major factor -- no big American companies are packing up and going home. Membership in the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan has remained steady even though the cost of doing business here has risen more than 30 per cent in two years just because of changes in the exchange rate. The Japanese do not necessarily agree among themselves that the fall of the dollar is a sign of American weakness and mismanagement. Quite a few see it as a sign of American power, believing that the Carter administration deliverately talked the dollar down to force the yen up and thus eurtail Japan's exports.

The minor effects of the dollar's decline add up to the face Americans are simply less visible in Japan these days. The number of military personnel stationed in Japan has fallen from 82,000 to 46,000 in eight years, and with their shrinking dollars they don't go out much. Bars and restaurants that once flourished near the gates of military bases are closing by the scores.

The American-sponsored program of Fulbright exchanges for scholars and students is also showing some scars from the dollar's decline. Last year its $1 million budget was based on an exchange rate of 290 yen to the dollar but its last transaction was closed out at a rate of only 189 yen per dollar, reflecting a one-third loss in value. To compensate, Fulbright administrators cut artists out of the program and reduced the terms of an anthropologist, journalist, economist and psychotherapy student from nine to seven months. Even airline baggage allowances for visiting scholars were cut back to save dollars. Only help from the Japanese government, expected to be approved this spring, will keep the Fulbright program going at its old speed in Japan. CAPTION: Illustration, "Fresh, spirited American troops, flushed with victory, are bringing in thousands of hungry, ragged, battle-weary prisoners..." (News item); Copyright (c) 1945, Bill Mauldin; Picture The U.S. is still Japan's most important trading partner. Christian Science Monitor