Another multibillion-dollar Japanese marketing success in television is in the making, and major American manufacturers aren't raising a finger to bid for the business. Later, they will be crying a lot if and when the Japanese dominate in the latest technological breakthrough: high-density television.

HDTV is such a qualitative leap forward that it has to be seen to be believed. I was fortunate enough to see a demonstration of the Japanese system at the Tsukuba City science fair in 1985. For the first time, a picture of the same quality shown in large-screen movie theaters can be brought into the home.

The question of how to cope with HDTV is a hot topic in broadcasting and TV circles, but it has almost totally escaped the attention of the general public. It is reminiscent of what happened to videocassette recorders. The first VCR production models were built by RCA in the United States and by Phillips in Europe back in the 1960s.

But they cost well over $1,000, out of the reach of most consumers. RCA and Phillips blew it: unwilling to invest enough money to make VCRs attractive to consumers, they decided the VCR business would be a flop. But Japan's Sony and Matsushita took those first cumbersome machines, redesigned them to fit the living room or den, slashed prices -- and grabbed one of the all-time great consumer markets.

There could be a reprise of the VCR story with HDTV. The new technology has evolved more generally, here and in Japan, over the past 15 years. But while Japan ran with the ball, committing an estimated $500 million to development, American electronics companies have put almost no effort into a competing system.

Japan's state-owned television broadcasting system, NHK, has already demonstrated HDTV here, in Europe and in the Soviet Union. It plans to start commercial transmission by satellite in Japan in 1990, along with the sale of HDTV receivers in both Japanese and American markets.

The only American entry is a prototype developed by a distinguished American inventor, Dr. William Glenn. Glenn isn't as far along as NHK -- but he's got one big advantage going for him. The system, which he demonstrated last spring to the National Association of Broadcasters in Dallas on a closed-circuit basis, is compatible with, and therefore would not make obsolete, present color-TV receivers.

Glenn is a former vice president and director of research of CBS Laboratories. He has 96 high-tech patents, many of them major, to his credit and has a top-notch reputation among scientists and in industry.

He has invented an HDTV system that -- same as NHK's -- transmits a picture with 1,125 lines, or more than twice the 525 lines received by today's standard TV receiver-sets. It has other technical advantages over current transmission. But the fact that it is "friendly," or compatible with present sets, is of major economic significance.

"This is not a small or inconsequential public-policy issue," says Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications Alfred C. Sikes. "If you start adding up the total TV-equipment investment in this country . . . you find that this is potentially a $100 billion problem."

Glenn tells me that American industrial moguls seem paralyzed. He observes that the big manufacturers are abandoning their interest in practically all consumer electronics. In recent weeks, General Electric sold its consumer electronics division to Thomson S.A., a French company. By default, Glenn feels, the Japanese will soon enjoy commercial dominance of what he estimates to be a $25 billion to $50 billion HDTV market in another 10 years.

Glenn told me that, given the short-term investment approach in American industry, HDTV technology will cost too much over too long a time for any single company to undertake. Thus, he is trying to get the government to sponsor a consortium formed with industry, government and university participation -- based, to be sure, on his HDTV system.

After CBS went out of the manufacturing business in 1975 and shrank its research lab staff from 700 to 30 people, Glenn says he talked CBS into donating its commercial projects to the New York Institute of Technology as a tax write-off. Among the institute's affiliates is a research facility that Glenn now operates in Dania, Fla., where he carries on his work. It has a tiny $750,000 annual budget provided by the National Association of Broadcasters and the Electronics Industry Association.

Commerce Department officials are sympathetic to Glenn, but find industry apathetic. Sikes recently asked: "Why can't U.S. industry see this as an opportunity to regain an important position in one of this country's most important and influential industries?"

It's a good question. As Sikes told broadcasters in Washington yesterday, there is a need for government to get involved, perhaps by getting "new players" outside of the TV industry into the act. Unless someone soon shows some of the old Yankee trader spirit, NHK may become a better known acronym than ABC, CBS or NBC.