THE AMERICAN economy is looking like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting these days, with one industry after another raising its hand, stepping up to the podium and confessing, "We can't compete with Japan."

Irate legislators and would-be presidents have done their best to reassure us that the "unfair trading practices" of other nations lie at the bottom of our difficulties. But that reassurance has been wearing thin, given the widespread suspicion that even if Japan, West Germany, South Korea and the rest decided to hold promotional cocktail parties for every incoming American product, the U.S. trade deficit would probably decline by about .00001 percent.

Lately, though, a more sophisticated form of consolation has been taking hold. Americans may no longer be much good at making things, the thesis goes, but we are still the most original and creative people on the planet. Indeed, the American mind has evolved to such an advanced state of brilliance that we simply can't stomach the drone-work of translating our discoveries into useful products. So we have farmed the job out to those infinitely patient, but fundamentally unoriginal, Japanese.

The implications are intoxicating. What does it matter if our manufacturing sector goes down the tubes? We can be global idea merchants, and if we price our ideas right and guard our patents zealously (this being an Information Age), we might even manage to hold on to our accustomed place at the top of the economic heap.

But before we get too carried away, it may be useful to examine the premise. How unoriginal are the Japanese? How original are we? What do we mean by originality, anyway? As Exhibit A, I offer in evidence the history of the videocassette recorder.

Walk into any neighborhood saloon these days and inside of three beers some self-taught economist of the Michelobian school is likely to declare, "The VCR was invented in America. The Japanese copied it from us, and now we buy our VCRs from Japan."

Well, almost. The VCR wasn't invented in America, but its predecessor, the videotape recorder, or VTR, was -- by Ampex in 1956. And the Ampex machine, designed for use by broadcasters, depended on two key ideas -- rotating heads and FM recording -- which have been basic to every video recorder built since. In the late '50s, when Ampex first tried to sell VTRs for broadcast use in Japan, it was given the bureaucratic runaround while several Japanese companies marketed unauthorized clones of Ampex's VTR -- one so exact that it even included the useless holes in the top-plate that Ampex had put there by mistake. (Postwar Japan, like the U.S. in the 19th century, did not see much point in respecting the intellectual property rights of more developed nations.)

In the early '60s, in order to secure Japanese patent protection, Ampex had to bow to government pressure to (a) take on a Japanese partner and (b) license its technology to the very companies that had been pirating it. Thus was born the Japanese video-recorder industry, and there are probably people at Ampex who feel that the VCR would be an American product today except for such shenanigans.

But this selective history ignores a number of important creative contributions on the Japanese end. It was Toshiba that developed and patented the helical-scan method of recording, making it possible to reduce the size of the tape and the mechanical components. It was Sony that built the first transistorized -- and thus relatively compact -- VTR under a joint-venture arrangement with Ampex. (Even in 1960, the management of Ampex felt the need for Japanese help in designing and making transistorized circuits; some Ampex engineers were so stuck in the vacuum-tube era that they posted little signs on their desks, reading "Help Stamp Out Transistors.") It was Matsushita that came up with azimuth recording, an ingenious way of slanting the recording heads in order to avoid "cross-talk" between adjacent tracks. It was Sony again -- in particular an engineer named Nobutoshi Kihara -- that figured out how to apply the azimuth-recording concept to a color video signal and then developed the first workable videocassette. (If I had to name an "inventor" of the VCR, Kihara would be the man.)

By 1976, when the home-video era got under way, Sony was the leading company in the field and the competition was exclusively Japanese. (An American consumer, if he chose, could get his Japanese-made VCR with an RCA, GE or Zenith label affixed). Some of the Japanese advances can be dismissed as mere refinements -- mopping-up operations, as it were, in the wake of the American brainstorm. But it is a risky business trying to distinguish between fundamental and incremental advances. One man's increment may be another's fundament.

"You tell me someone who invented something worth inventing and wasn't inspired by someone else," says Lancelot Braithwaite, who makes his living evaluating products for Video Magazine.

The original VTR is a case in point. Its forebear was the audio-tape recorder, which our electronics wizards pilfered, along with plenty of other booty, from Nazi Germany. The first prototype of a VTR -- demonstrated at Bing Crosby's recording studios in November 1951 -- was basically a souped-up audio tape recorder made to run at many times its normal speed.

When Ampex came out with its VTR, the company had no thought of turning it into a consumer product. Sony, by contrast, saw that potential immediately, as well as the advantage of promoting the technology as a means of "time-shifting" -- a concept, and a phrase, that originated with Akio Morita, Sony's chairman. "People do not have to read a book when it's delivered," Morita liked to say. "Why should they have to see a TV program when it's delivered?"

As long ago as 1965, Sony introduced a "consumer" VTR, the CV-2000, which was advertised as a declaration of independence against the tyranny of time. The CV-2000 failed because the user had to feed tape from one reel to another, which struck potential buyers as too tricky. But Sony was on the right track, and over the next 10 years the company listened to customers' criticisms and gradually advanced through a series of products and prototypes toward its goal -- a video recorder simple and inexpensive enough for use in the home.

Meanwhile, a host of American companies with no experience at actually marketing such a product tried to sell the public on home-video machines that (like RCA's HoloTape, CBS's EVR, and MCA's DiscoVision) could only play, not record. When their ventures sputtered, they simply abandoned the field, never to be heard from again.

The only American-made VCR ever to reach the market, a primitive machine known as Cartrivision, was launched in 1972 by a group of New Yorkers who had made their money selling real estate and Volkswagens. Neither they nor Avco, the company that gave them financing, had any experience with consumer electronics -- as they quickly demonstrated. Cartrivision was sold as a $1,600 console with a built-in color TV, although it soon became apparent that the people most likely to buy such an expensive item were those most likely to own a color TV already. And the ability to record off the air was buried in advertising that stressed the allure of prerecorded programming -- fine arts, how-to films and Hollywood features -- although, not surprisingly, it was hard to build a tape-distribution network for a brand-new system.

But the most deluded of all Cartrivision's ideas, hands down, was that of the non-rewindable cassette for feature films. These were available on a rental-only basis, and in order to assuage Hollywood's concerns about multiple viewings for the price of a single rental, the movies came on cassettes that could not be rewound without a special machine to which retailers, but not customers, had access. Thus, a viewer who happened to be called away by a screaming baby or a burning roast was forbidden to go back to the portion of the movie he had missed. Cartrivision, in short, was a VCR that tried to deny the public one of its major distinctive features -- the ability to go backward and forward at will.

"In today's industry, we need three different kinds of creativity," Akio Morita said a few weeks ago, when I put to him the proposition that the Japanese are fundamentally less original than Americans. He explained that he meant creativity in raw technology, in product planning and design, and in marketing. Japan, he said, has "quite a lead" in the second and third realms, while the United States, he conceded, is ahead in the first. "But if you just take the first," he added, "you cannot make a business." The Sony Walkman was largely a hodge-podge of existing technologies, and yet "we created a new listening habit all over the world," Morita observed.

The history of the compact disk -- an offspring of the video laserdisc, developed by America's MCA -- is another favorite saga of those who give the Japanese high marks for discipline and persistence but low marks for originality. In the early 1970s, MCA had the patents on the basic technology for encoding information as a series of microscopic pits in a plastic disc and using a laserbeam to play it back.

Unable to compete with VCRs in the home-entertainment niche, and unwilling to pursue other uses of the technology, MCA eventually abandoned it to Pioneer, a Japanese company. Phillips, a Dutch electronics giant, then pursued a similar concept for audio, only to lose faith when the first compact-disc machines sold poorly. When CD players finally took off in the early '80s, it was Sony that reaped most of the rewards. And now, as with so many other electronics products, an American out to buy a CD player will almost certainly wind up with one made in Japan.

But the Japanese success in laser recording was made possible by three important Japanese breakthroughs. It was a team of Sony engineers, under Heitaro Nakajima and Toshitada Doi (one of the world's leading digital mathematicians), that developed the error-correction system that permits accurate reproduction from a damaged disc. Sony was also responsible for reducing the player to portable size. And it was Pioneer that developed the clean-room technology that permitted the production of high-quality discs at a reasonable cost (something MCA never achieved at its plant in California). When MCA abandoned the laserdisc, it was from want of imagination as well as patience.

Innovative manufacturing -- which could be added to Morita's list as a fourth category of originality -- goes a long way toward explaining the success of the Japanese in the semiconductor field, where the basic technology is indeed American. It is easy to think of manufacturing as a mundane business in which discipline is all. But before we belittle the Japanese on this front, too, it may be worth asking whom we remember better, Henry Ford the manufacturer or Gottlieb Daimler the inventor?

"I think it's wishful thinking to suppose that the Japanese are not capable of truly originating new technology," says Gerald Mossinghoff, a former director of the U.S. patent office. The United States, Mossinghoff points out, is known for the severe standards of novelty and "unobviousness" with which it judges patent applications. Nevertheless, Japanese interests received 13,857 U.S. patents last year -- twice as many as West German interests and a third as many as American interests. Mossinghoff's opinion is also supported by what he has seen in his current job as head of the U.S. Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. In the late 1970s, he notes, the United States was responsible for a quarter of the world's new drugs, while the Japanese share was an eighth. Last year, Japan squeaked into first place by a score of 60-58.

Apostles of the we're-more-original theory have called for tougher intellectual-property laws and tougher enforcement as a strategy for American economic revival. It may be a strategy whose time has passed. In the consumer electronics field, American companies such as RCA and Ampex derive a great deal of revenue from Japanese patent royalties. But one of the first things General Electric did after buying RCA last year was to sell off the David Sarnoff Laboratories in Princeton, where many of RCA's technologies were born.

In the coming years, we will probably see more and more new Japanese products whose parentage (like that of the digital audio-tape recorder, which, Congress permitting, will appear on the market a few months hence) is thoroughly Japanese. Where the United States continues to lead Japan is in basic, as opposed to applied, research. Americans also remain well ahead in the development of computer software, and the advantage there may be a lasting as well as an important one.

Some people regard the American sort of originality as, somehow, more original. Well, some people regard poets as more creative than novelists. And some people say a poem is never lovely as a tree. James Lardner is the author of "Fast Forward: Hollywood, the Japanese, and the VCR Wars."