NEW YORK -- Over the ages, Jews have been cast in the role of scapegoat for the ills in many a nation's society. In the latest variation of this tired theme, there has been an astonishing spread of anti-Jewish litera-ture in Japan. It blames Japan's current economic problems -- including the high yen -- on Jews working behind the scenes to control world events.

In this replay of the Jewish-conspiracy theory, American Jews are also responsible for the Reagan administration's recent trade sanctions growing out of a dispute over semiconductors.

''Japan is in a rage, strongly believing that it is being bashed by America on trade issues,'' says Herbert Passin, the distinguished anthropologist and scholar who has worked and taught in Japan for the past 40 years. ''They say, 'How can you do anything like this to us?' So what you have {in the anti-Jewish books} is a proxy for anti-American feeling.''

Jews and Judaism are almost unknown to Japanese citizens. In Japan, a country with a population of 120 million, there are no more than 150 Western Jewish families, according to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

Yet books elaborating the Jewish-conspiracy theory are almost-certain best-sellers, some attaining a sale in excess of 1 million copies. The most provocative tract is called ''If You Can Understand the Jews, You Can Understand the World; and If You Understand the Jews, You Can Understand Japan,'' by Masami Uno.

Uno's central theme is that the Jews caused the economic depression in the 1930s, have now orchestrated the rise of the yen and decline of the dollar to ''hollow out'' Japanese industry and are arranging to have another depression take place in 1990, for which Japan will be made the scapegoat.

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper, Uno's books are given respectful attention within the Bank of Japan, the country's equivalent of the Federal Reserve Board.

Bookstore chains such as Kinokuniya, including its New York branch in Rockefeller Center, respond to the demand with special displays called ''Jewish corners.'' Ironically, one of Uno's primary targets is the Rockefeller family, which he alleges is one of the many Jewish families that run multinational companies such as IBM and General Motors, major American newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, and key news agencies.

Not all Japanese believe this nonsense, but Passin told me in an interview in New York that 90 percent of the Japanese people really believe the Rockefellers are Jewish. Some Japanese authors, tapping into the same rich sales vein, say that althoughRonald Reagan can't be proven Jewish, he is pretty well controlled by two powerful Cabinet members, Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz, both falsely identified as Jewish.

Japanese government officials, responding to complaints from American congressmen, point out that there is freedom of the press in Japan; hence, there is nothing they can do about it. They cite evidence of past goodwill and humanity toward Jews, especially just prior to World War II, when Japan aided Jews to escape from Europe and began a project -- the Fugu Plan -- to develop a Jewish community in Manchuria.

But why do highly educated Japanese fall for a mix of slander and fiction, including the discredited ''Protocols of the Elders of Zion,'' a forgery and hoax going back more than 80 years, alleging a secret plot among Jewish leaders to dominate the world?

I am indebted to Passin for an account of some of the historical antecedents to the current wave of Japanese anti-Jewish books. Passin says that ''the structure of thought is there'': a complex and ambivalent Japanese feeling about Jews.

Negative feelings were stirred up at the end of the Meiji period, a century ago, when the first Christian missionaries to Japan portrayed Jews as anti-Christ. Then, when Japan ran out of money in 1904-05 at the time of the Russo-Japanese war, it was rescued by Jacob Schiff, a leading American banker who happened to be Jewish. Schiff sold $200 million worth of bonds for Japan -- a huge sum at that time -- when all others said it couldn't be done.

The Japanese of that period were impressed and grateful, but ''there was an obverse side,'' Passin recalled. ''The Japanese said to themselves, 'Why did Schiff do that for us? It must have been to hurt the anti-Semitic Russians.' Their conclusion was that there must be a worldwide network of Jewish financiers.''

For a period of time, Japanese military officials wondered how to tap into that mythical network, perhaps through an alliance with persecuted but wealthy European Jews. But once the Axis Alliance with Germany became a formality, such notions were put aside and Japan adopted the Nazis' propaganda line.

Now, latent negative feelings have been rekindled, the excuse being Japan's economic problems. But Jews, having survived worse, will outlive a book barrage by Uno and others. The Japanese government need not stoop to censorship. It should recognize, however, that the current anti-Semitic campaign is, in reality, an attack on America that puts at risk the vaunted ''special'' relationship between Japan and the United States.