IN A SERIES of recent statements, Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki has now given his final reply to the Reagan administration's renewal of the long-standing American request for a more serious Japanese defense effort. It is remarkable that his stance has received so little attention in the United States because it amounts to nothing less than a contemptous refusal: Japan's military expenditure will not reach even the long-promised level of 1 percent of the gross national product for the next several years.

This means in practice that Japan will continue to evade its responsibilities even at the most minimal level, and this at a time when the Japanese economy is doing very well, and has a large surplus in the trade balance with the United States (and with Europe).

For at least seven years, successive American administrations have been patiently explaining the strategic implications of the adverse change in the military balance with the Soviet Union -- manifest especially in Northeast Asia and the Western Pacific.

For at least seven years, in the regular meetings between American secretaries of defense and the directors of Japan's Defense Agency, the very modest dimensions of the effort required from Japan have been spelled out: The United States is not asking the Japanese to strain the limits of its 1957 "Basic Policy" by deploying forces that might be deemed to have an offensive character in a strategic sense, and the Japanese are not being asked to match our own sacrifice for defense (more than 6 percent of GNP) nor, for that matter, that of our European allies (4 percent on the average).

All that the Japanese have been asked to do is to take over fully the strictly defensive roles of antisubmarine and air defense in the immediate area around Japan. It is estimated that this could be done with a mere 1 percent of the GNP allocated for defense, while 2 percent would just about pay for even the most ambitious of the various defense plans being circulated by Japan's own unofficial defense groups, notably the prestigious Japanese Center for Strategic Studies.

When the American-Japanese dialogue began in earnest some seven years ago, the initial Japanese response was forthcoming and obviously sincere. The director of the Defense Agency at the time, Michita Sakata, explained to his American counterpart, James R. Schlesinger, the sharp constraints that an uninformed public opinion was placing on what the Defense Agency could do, and he promised to prepare the ground for a more serious defense effort by informing the public about the realities of the military situation in Northeast Asia, especially in regard to the great increase in the Soviet Union's naval strength.

Sakata promptly fulfilled his promise. A very able former education minister (who has just now reemerged as the minister of justice in Suzuki's new cabinet), he set out to educate the public by giving the media much more information than ever before, and by publishing highly informative "defense of Japan" white papers giving facts and figures in clear and easily understood form.

Even the Japanese press, conqenitally antidefense (and not at all pro- American on the whole), had to take notice, and for a while Japanese magazines were filled with illustrated stories about the visible presence of the Soviet navy and Soviet air power all around Japan. Long ignored, Soviet warships cruising around the home islands were being photographed routinely by enterprising photo-reporters for Japanese magazines and the Japanese public soon began to notice that the "Soviet threat" was more than a made-in-USA abstraction. With this, a more informed and more responsible attitude began to be manifest in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the prospects of a serious Japanese defense effort seemed to be promising.

But since Sakata's day, matters have greatly deteriorated. The core leadership of Japan Inc., the ruling party and big business and their instruments, the ministries of Finance and of International Trade, have obviously decided that the Americans can be exploited for another few decades.

At present, American officials who deal with Japan confront the well coordinated "teamwork" of government, opposition and press. When faced with the latest version of the American request, the government first signals to the press and opposition that loud protest is in order; then it proceeds to explain its inability to help on the grounds that there is no "consensus" for greater military expenditure. Seasoned observers of the Japanese scene have become used to this routine, and watch its ritualized performance with tolerant amusement -- and they point out, in contrast, that the Japanese government seems to have no difficulty at all in doing whatever it really wants to do at home or abroad, given its net majority in the Diet.

Tolerant amusement should, however, not be the American response to Suzuki's challenge. At a time when we have launched our costly and belated effort to restore a tolerable balance of military power worldwide, we need Japan's contribution in the Northeast Pacific more than ever before. Further, our parallel campaign in Europe to secure a greater military effort from our NATO allies is now beginning to be undermined by the Japanese example: Even the much maligned Danes point out that their level of effort, paltry as it is, is still more than twice as high as the Japanese.

The situation demands a change in the whole tone and substance of our defense diplomacy with Japan. It was for very good reason that in the past our attitude was tactful, restrained and indeed permissive. We were dealing with a country traumatized by militarism and war, and a country, moreover, which retained the option of moving toward a neutralist stance.

But Japan has now fully recovered its self-confidence and, more important, the huge growth of Soviet military power in Northeast Asia has made the prospect of an unarmed neutrality unthinkable for the Japanese. We can therefore now be firm with the Japanese with little risk of unfavorable strategic consequences. For the one option that does remain open for Japan would be a move toward a well armed neutrality in the Swedish style, and that would suit us very well (just as in Europe, a strong Sweden does more for NATO than several of its members).

There are still those who profess to fear that Japan might go on to acquire muclear weapons, or even revert to an aggressive militarism if we give it an initial impulse by inducing the Japanese to acquire serious military forces, even if only defensive. But we cannot be paralyzed forever by such fears, which lack all plausibility. The enthusiasm of the Japanese public for the acquisition of nuclear weapons is nil, and it is only a tiny fraction of the population that manifests any nostalgia at all for the imperialist policies of the 1930s, which brought such ruin upon Japan.

In these circumstances, we should now present our demand for a more equitable distribution of the security burden in a characteristically Japanese format: the polite ultimatum, quietly conveyed.

Along with a list of suggested force-level desiderata, we must also present a package of retaliatory measures that would be implemented on a fixed timetable in the event of a Japanese refusal. Import controls would have to be the dominant form of reprisal, but some U.S. force redeployments would also be in order: Even U.S. forces that are in Japan primarily for our own global strategic purposes would be just as useful in, say, Korea (where more U.S. forces would be greatly welcomed).

In any case, we must stop pleading, and we must stop complaining. Seven years of patient remonstrance about Japan's unfairness have earned us only promises unfulfilled -- and now Suzuki's flat refusal. In American domestic politics, the "squeaky wheel" often enough gets the "grease," but in Japanese politics, complaints, whining and pleading are not part of the discourse. There is instead the firm enunciation of clear demands, supported by the credible intent to punish a refusal -- and this provides the only promising model for our own diplomatic conduct with Japan.