TOKYO -- After living here three years we've discovered it's easy to dump on Japan.

For a start, Japanese can be rigid, officious, humorless, sexist, narrow-minded, clannish, conformist, uncharitable, xenophobic and smug.

Their love of nature? Take a look at their cemented-over coastline and riverbanks, littered with beer cans, plastic bags and cigarette butts. Their vaunted politesse? Just don't stand in the way of that little old lady angling for a subway seat -- and don't expect anyone to give you a seat even if you're sick, crippled, pregnant or a little old lady yourself.

Their free-thinking democracy? Tell it to the schoolgirl with natural red highlights who was forced to dye her hair black by school officials, or to the Nagasaki mayor who was shot and wounded by a rightist after he dared suggest that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for World War II.

Their free-market triumph? Listen to the Foreign Ministry official admitting, in an unguarded moment, that Japan will always rather produce something itself than buy it overseas. Or talk to one of Tokyo's rare discount retailers about how he gets blacklisted by Japan's giant manufacturers if he drops his prices too low.

It's no wonder that, as Japanese influence grows around the world, a common reaction is, "We admire them, but we don't like them."

We've felt that way, too. But something always happens the next day to make us see things differently.

A stranger at a sushi bar strikes up a conversation over still-squirming shrimp and, by the second cup of tea, has invited us to a family picnic on the weekend. A kimono-clad grandmother working at a Japanese inn sweeps our toddler daughter into her arms and carries her off into the kitchen. This is Japan, so we have no worries for her safety, and she returns a half hour later with a big smile and a fistful of chocolates. A group of Japan Peace Corps volunteers who have stepped off the corporate ladder head for Tonga, the Solomon Islands and China, not with any grand American visions of changing the world but with modest hopes of helping a few people in need. A worldly journalist friend levels far more incisive criticism against his own society than that by any foreign Japan-basher these days. When our beat-up Nissan Bluebird blows a tire near the prime minister's house, a half-dozen riot policemen jog over, suspicion melting into sympathy as they notice our children in the back. They take charge, change our tire and send us on the way with salutes far snappier than our jalopy.

This is the quandary of Japan, one we found ourselves grappling with for three years. It is a quandary that on another level helps explain Washington's official schizophrenia -- is Japan a threat or an ally? -- and it is one that seems to deepen, not be resolved, with increasing exposure to the country. The greatest experts are often the most confounded, and conflicted. A U.S. diplomat, who has spent a career defending the Japanese, muses at lunch about how unlovable, and at times infuriating, they can be; an academic extolls their incredible accomplishments and bemoans their towering arrogance, almost in the same breath.

There's no question that this society works in ways that often astonish Americans. People are diligent. Students study, workers work, no one begs and no one slouches. Drive into a gas station, and four or five employees swoop down on your car with enthusiasm, as if they have never filled a tank or washed a windshield before. Late one night, the clang of metal dustpans echoing on our darkened street brings us to our window; a group of elderly volunteers in hardhats is sweeping its way down the street, removing gum wrappers and soda cans. Leave your wallet in one of Tokyo's sparkling taxis, and the white-gloved driver will spend hours tracking you down to give it back.

The civility and small considerations often accorded others -- these can relax and refresh the spirit. Men may not hold doors for women, but someone exiting an elevator presses the "Close Door" button as a courtesy to those left behind. In subways, no one would dream of playing loud music or sullying the seat with muddy shoes or wet umbrellas. To walk down a dark street alone without fear, to leave one's car doors unlocked or department store merchandise unguarded -- these are freedoms Americans have almost forgotten.

But the civility extended to each other, and to white foreigners, often is withheld from Filipino babysitters, Pakistani day laborers and other darker-skinned visitors, who live in fear of Japanese police and with the open contempt of many Japanese civilians. Nor does the civility extend to international business competition, where Japan's take-no-prisoners approach is often seen as less than fair and honorable.

Nor does everything here hum along as efficiently as a Honda Accord engine. Tokyo's international airport, Narita, is a nightmare of poor planning. Some traffic-clogged roads resemble parking lots more than freeways. Many homes still have no indoor plumbing, with even some Tokyo residents still using outhouses. Subways crisscrossing the capital deep underground usually provide no air conditioning, and few elevators or escalators; handicapped people are expected to stay out of sight. Paying bills can often mean an ordeal of trooping from bank to bank, with each taking a healthy cut along the way, since checks and credit cards remain underused.

More serious, the social pressures and ingrained restraints that make Japan work also inevitably limit individualism and diversity. After some time in Japan, an American breathes a sigh of relief upon reaching Hong Kong or Seoul, where women laugh heartily and without demurely covering their mouths, where people wear bright colors, where an acquaintance will poke you in the chest, look you in the eye and tell you what's really on his mind.

Many Japanese feel stifled, too, but their system is so demanding and tightly woven that it is virtually impossible to opt half-way out. From cram schools for kindergarteners to lifetime employment demanding more devotion to company than family, Japanese accept that to get ahead means to buckle under. Thus when our friend, a government bureaucrat, was told by his boss that he needed a wife by year's end to qualify for his next promotion, he booked a wedding hall for Dec. 29. Then, through a go-between, he found a wife.

A Japanese reporter based in Washington recently begged his editors for an extension of his three-year tour. His children had spent so much time in the United States that there was no chance they could reenter the Japanese educational system and be accepted; their only hope was to finish American schooling and enter an "international" university in Japan. It is easy to criticize the irritating conformity, the somewhat frightening willingness to uncritically obey dictates from above, and many foreigners do. Many Japanese who remember the poverty and hunger of a few decades ago view the sacrifices demanded by the system as a reasonable price to pay for the prosperity, security and relative equality of today's society.

But increasing numbers of Japanese too are becoming critical, chafing against the cradle-to-grave gridlock of their society. Those sent overseas, a rapidly growing contingent, revel in the freedom there and swear they won't return to the strictures of the past. We heard that time and again from our Japanese friends in the United States. But somehow, once they hit Narita their resolve withered.

The politician's son, wild and crazy owner of a Trans-Am in the United States who was determined to escape his destiny, now dutifully spends nights and weekends attending constituent weddings and funerals. A young Japanese banker spent a summer month agonizing over whether to leave his company for a more exciting, high-paying and, of course, risky job with an American competitor. In the end he stayed with what he knew, even though he felt he had somehow given in.

This is why it is so hard to say whether Japan is changing -- and how quickly. On the one hand more Japanese are traveling, more women are working, more young people are committing the previously unpardonable sins of job-hopping and demanding weekends off for time with their families. On the other hand, a recent survey showed that Tokyoites are working longer and spending more time commuting than they did 10 years ago. In some ways Japan is becoming more rigid, more Japanese, as it moves further away from the shakeups imposed by the U.S. postwar occupation: school rules have become stricter, the establishment more heriditary and less meritocratic.

Is Japan an ally or a threat? Our answer still depends on whether we're coming from the sushi shop or Narita airport. But three years have left us with no doubt about the ferocity of the Japanese economic challenge and what appears from overseas to be a dangerous lack of resolve in the United States about getting its own house in order. Whether one likes the Japanese or not, whether they are changing or not, they clearly will continue working hard, and well. And all the Japan-bashing in Washington is not going to change that.

Washington Post staff writers Fred Hiatt and Margaret Shapiro completed their assignment in Japan this summer.