On the whole, William Manchester enjoyed his 63rd birthday more than his 23rd, during which he thought, reasonably: How unlikely I am to have a 24th. He was born April 1, 1922, and on April 1, 1945, he was among the Marines who began the last great battle of the war, on Okinawa. One of his memories of that experience is relevant to something occurring in Washington today.

The Marines were amazed by the extraordinary proficiency of Japanese artillery on southern Okinawa. Every road and other vital point was brilliantly targeted. So amazed were the Marines that a surmise became widespread: The Japanese must have German artillery advisers. Similarly, the brilliance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had caused some American officials to suspect that the planes had been piloted by Germans. There were other explanations.

Prior to the war, Japan had an artillery school on Okinawa. A standard exercise for fledgling officers was to answer this question: How would you defend the school against attack? A generation of officers had thought hard about fighting on Okinawa. And beginning in 1931, every graduate of Japan's naval academy had been required to answer one question: How would you execute a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor?

In the 1940s, many Americans had a racist impulse to assume that the "yellow peril" could not be such a peril without Caucasian assistance. However, the Japanese were good warriors because they were what they still are: a great disciplined people, tenacious in pursuit of their interests as they saw them.

In his marvelous history, "The Glory and the Dream," Manchester recalls the complacent, condescending American attitude immediately after Pearl Harbor, as jukeboxes blared "Goodbye Mama, I'm off to Yokohama." Scoffers said that a Japanese soldier on parade "resembled a poorly wrapped parcel of brown paper -- soiled, crumpled, and threatening to come apart." But Japanese sharpshooters were accurate at 1,000 yards, infantrymen carried 400 rounds of ammunition (twice what U.S. infantrymen carried) and five days' rations of fish and rice. In 1941 their ships were faster, their guns bigger, their torpedoes better, and they had more and better aircraft than the United States.

It has been asked: Who in 1945 would have believed that, a generation later, Japan and a Jewish state would be considered a great trading nation and a great warrior nation, respectively? But great nations do what they must do. In 1985 it cannot be said too frequently that Japan, a densely populated nation dependent on imports, would be a formidable commercial competitor even if it respected the rules of free trade.

Free trade ranks just below Christianity and just above jogging on the list of things constantl praised but only sporadically practiced. As a cause of the U.S. trade deficit, Japan's protectionism, although significant, is less so than the U.S. deficit, which drives up the value of the dollar and the price of U.S. exports. Another factor is U.S. restrictions on such exports as oil and lumber.

Today, Japan is seen not merely as commercially aggressive or candidly protectionist. Rather, it is considered disingenuous, and contemptuous about U.S. readiness to retaliate. Well, Japan is disingenuous: It uses dilatory negotiations as distractions and keeps its markets closed with maddening regulations, such as until recently the stipulation that American cigarettes cannot be advertised in Japanese.

But Japan's disdain for U.S. resolve is not unreasonable, given the years of U.S. tolerance of Japan's tactics. Besides, a nation that has no response when its soldiers are hacked to death with axes (Korean DMZ, 1976) or shot and allowed to bleed o death (East Germany, 1985) should expect tougher nations to doubt its determination.

If Japan wonders why retaliation may at last occur, Japan should listen to Horace Busby, a Washington consultant. He notes that as long as the focus of contention was automobiles, U.S. resentment was regionally concentrated, primarily in the Great Lakes states. Now attention is focused on electronics, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, forest products and other goods, so the base of congressional resentment is correspondingly wider.

Congress can in good conscience prod the administration to push Japan toward a more open market. But Americans should not make the mistake of assuming, as was done 40 and 45 years ago, that Japanese successes are to be explained -- explained away, really -- without reference to this fact: The Japanese do many things very well. Someday they, and we, may be amazed to learn how little they needed the commercial trickiness that has become a big problem.