The law office of Dalkichi Shiratani is a kind of mirror of the state of Japan's legal system. There are no wood-paneled walls, no solid oak desks and no deep leather chairs. It is a small, cramped room on the fourth floor of a narrow building in the unfashionable Sugamo district of Tokyo, and to find the staircase one presses through a gap between a tobacco stand and an open-air clothes market.

It is a reflection of the phenomenon that Japanese do not often resort to lawyers or courts. Shiratani has a busy, successful practice, but he is one of only 11,900 lawyers in a country of 116 million people. Japan has at least 34 certified flower-arranging teachers for every lawyer here.

Going to court with a lawyer is not very popular in Japan, Shiratani said during a conversation around the plain metal conference table.

"It's a kind of sport in the United States," he said. "People are relaxed about being suied there. In Japan, there is a very heavy pressure for one's whole life to be mixed up in a court case. To sue or be sued in a court is a very heavy burden."

A study 10 years ago found that the number of civil actions filed in Massachusetts was 20 times the number filed in all of Japan. The ratio probably has not changed much since.

Japan has had a Western-style legal system, modeled on Germany's, since 1868, but for the common citizen it is something to be avoided. Disputes should be settled by mutual agreement and consensus, not by litigation, Japanese believe, and a court appearance is a painful experience, if not a confession of failure.

The Japanese traditional value of harmony prevails, even when an emotional conflict emerges, writes Hideo Tanaka, author of "The Japanese Legal System," and the idea of disciplined argument before a judge is distasteful.

"To their minds, settlement of disputes without arguing their points of view in a reasoned way and without fighting out their cases in court is of supreme value," he adds.

When a Japanese does wind up in court, explains a practicing lawyer, Kikuo Hosaka, the attitude is one of shock. "I am hurt to be sued," is the common reaction, he said.

So what happens when damage is done, debts are unpaid, agreements are violated? The normal course calls for those involved in the dispute to try to agree between themselves on a remedy. If that fails, one of the parties usually enlists the mediation of a prominent person, such as a parliament member's secretary or a ward official.

"When someone comes to me, it means that all other means have failed," said lawyer Shiratani.

Even the mere appearance of a lawyer has an unsettliing effect, and an attorney's first instinct is to stay in the background as much as possible. Hosaka represents real estate interests in a country where tenant rights are strong, and he is often called on to get a backsliding renter out of a residence. His initial advice usually is for the owner to attempt persuasion.

"If I go first, it would only damage things," he said. "It would be a hostile act."

In an impersonal, modern society such as Japan, however, persuasion and consensus do not always work and with relatively few lawyers at hand Japanese often have to look elsewhere. The result is increased prominence of a peculiar brand of quasilegal specialists who, for a fee, try to work things out short of the courts. There are specialists in auto accidents and bad debt cases and a kind of general practitioner known as a "compromise-maker."

On a lower, less respectable level, gangster-style enforcers use imtimidation to collect money for loan sharks or landlords. Their methods range from moderate harassment to physical assaults, and they have been known to bust up the furniture in a delinquent debtor's home. To some critics, they are the dark side of the lawyer shortage in Japan. Victims rarely retaliate with law suits.

One reason for the scarcity of lawyers is the national bar exam, one of the toughest in a country that is known for tough qualifying tests. Only 500 students, about one applicant in 60, pass it each year, thus winning admission to a government training program that lasts for two years. A Western critic calls the exam "absurdly competitive."

Although Tokyo appears to be amply stocked with lawyers, other cities have few and many rural areas are without a single attorney.

The Japanese reluctance to seek legal redress may be undergoing a change. During the 1960s and 1970s there were several celebrated legal cases in which citizens sued the government or corporations for relief when negotiations failed.

Many antipollution cases have been filed against offending companies, and their success has lessened the sense of public disapproval, authorities say.

Suing the government is a change in itself. Not until 1973 was the first suit filed to block construction of a highway.