"IF YOU'RE really going to Detroit, wear a bulletproof vest," my wife Noriko said. "Remember what happened to your good friend Ninoy Aquino at the Manila airport. I don't want to be widowed like Mrs. Aquino and I certainly don't want to be prime minister of Japan in your stead."

Noriko was worried about my safety, and as the date of the trip grew near, other friends expressed concern as well. Scenes of the prize-winning documentary about Vincent Chin, the Chinese-American who was mistaken for a Japanese and beaten to death by two unemployed steelworkers in Detroit in 1982, came to mind.

When I visited Washington last January, Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) invited me to attend a town meeting in his district and hear grass-roots opinion about Japan. I immediately agreed, but later, when my family and associates voiced apprehension, I began to have second thoughts. Still, I had promised and I wanted to give my side of the issues.

Arriving at the Detroit airport, I felt like Gary Cooper in "High Noon" as he headed for a fateful encounter against overwhelming odds. But at the town meeting, support came from an unexpected quarter: ordinary Detroiters, people who work in the auto industry. (It was like being rescued by the U.S. Cavalry, if I may belabor the Western analogy.)

Their civility and fairness restored my faith in the American commitment to free speech. The hysterical reaction on Capitol Hill and by the media to the book by Sony chairman Akio Morita and myself, "The Japan That Can Say No," was a very disillusioning experience. First, our copyright was violated by an error-filled pirated translation. Then we were vilified on the basis of this distorted version of our views. Is this international dialogue?

The Detroit audience symbolized to me American common sense and conscience, qualities hard to find in Washington these days where Japan is concerned. Outside the Beltway, there is still plenty of sound judgment. When I pointed out that U.S. economic ills were largely its own doing and that corrective actions haven't been taken, the audience applauded -- just as they had applauded speakers who criticized the closed nature of the Japanese market. I could see how frustrated people were with U.S. politicians who demagogically attack Japan while doing little to revive U.S. industry.

At the start of the town meeting, I asked how many people had read "Global Competition: The New Reality," a study by the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness or "Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge" by the MIT Commission on Industrial Productivity. These are solid, objective analyses of the weaknesses of U.S. industry and prescriptions for healing the ailing giant. The show of hands by the audience indicated to me that there is greater interest in these reports among the public than in Congress. I took it as proof that Washington is not responsive to popular concerns.

Japan must open its market fully to foreign goods and services and our complex distribution system must be streamlined. We should make these changes because they benefit Japanese consumers, not because U.S. trade negotiators demand them. But Americans should not assume that further liberalization is a panacea for the bilateral trade imbalance. Long protected, Japanese companies can now handle all comers.

The trade deficit with Japan will fall when U.S. products regain their reputation around the world for quality and design. Today, Americans themselves prefer many foreign-made goods. The responsibility for this paradox lies squarely with U.S. management and the politicians who make economic policy. Robert McNamara, former president of the World Bank, recently said that as long American industry cannot compete internationally, liberalization of Japan's market will have no effect on the U.S. trade deficit with Japan. That is a correct assessment.

Instead of criticizing Japan, U.S. politicians should do their homework about what their country buys from my country. Over the last five years there has been a dramatic shift: Consumer goods have decreased while high-tech industrial goods have risen.

Nearly all the computer display terminals, floppy disks and industrial robots used in the United States are made in Japan. Virtually every machine tool used in Silicon Valley to produce microchips was made in Japan. This reliance on Japanese factories shows that the U.S. industrial base is steadily eroding.

The "patterns of weakness" catalogued by the MIT study are all attributable to American managerial or political shortcomings: outdated strategies, neglect of human resources, failures of cooperation, technological weaknesses in development and production, government and industry at cross-purposes and short time-horizons.

From Japan's point of view, no country is as well endowed as the United States with the basic conditions essential for industrial growth: vast territory and inexpensive land, abundant labor, wide-ranging basic research and self-sufficiency in resources. Given all these favorable factors, if the country cannot come back as a powerful industrial economy, then it is America's own fault.

Technology isolated in a laboratory is of little use to humankind; only when it is linked to management expertise can companies turn out new products to enrich our lives. Peter Drucker, the renowned management expert, has written that all technology must be encompassed in management. Nevertheless, many U.S. corporations have not been able to combine the two effectively. Unless U.S. business can integrate the research lab, assembly line and boardroom, the country will be unable to shape the emerging civilization of the 21st century. Military might gives a nation political power, of course. But ironically, the U.S. victory in the arms race with the Soviet Union is already making American global strategy irrelevant. In the years ahead, economic strength will supplant missile systems and nuclear weapons as the wellspring of national power and civilization.

Some U.S. companies like Caterpillar Inc. and Cummins Engine Co. have made remarkable turnarounds in a short period of time. These brilliant success stories show there is still innovative thinking and a willingness to work very hard in the United States. But the fact that this comeback hasn't been on a national scale is ultimately the responsibility of political leadership.

Recent U.S. opinion polls indicate that many Americans think Japan is a threat. But the real danger to the well-being of Detroiters and all Americans comes from top U.S. executives -- who, like rapacious Latin American dictators, enrich themselves and neglect their workers -- and from politicians who countenance this unfairness.

Whenever I am in Washington, I get the feeling that the people I meet do not even have an accurate view of their own country, let alone other countries. The seriousness of their myopia is well illustrated in the outcome of the Structural Impediments Initiative (SII) talks between the United States and Japan, which reached a conclusion of sorts in June. The U.S. side says it is satisfied with the agreement, but among most Japanese there lingers the bitter impression that once again their country has been forced into one-sided concessions.

Japan managed to avoid having to specify what percentage of its GNP would be spent on public works, but the Japanese government was obliged to promise to spend up to $3 trillion on public works over the next 10 years. Japanese opinion leaders say such a U.S. demand -- and compliance by Japan -- are absolutely ridiculous.

Public-works spending is an important built-in stabilizer in time of recession. But Japan's economy is doing just fine right now, so well, in fact, that there is a serious labor shortage. Pouring money into public works under such circumstances is sure to cause a sharp rise in both wages and commodity prices. If that was the United States' aim, it was foolish of Japan to so naively comply. If, on the other hand, America hopes that more public-works spending in Japan will help to restore the dynamism of the U.S. economy, it is barking up the wrong tree.

If the purpose of the SII talks was seriously to correct the bilateral trade imbalance, Japan should have done far more than simply make promises to try to eliminate trade impediments. It should have presented, based on the spirit of true friendship with the United States, proposals that would really help revitalize the American economy. The Japanese government was uninterested in such constructive action, so a group of like-minded Diet members, myself included, drew up a 109-point proposal. Unfortunately, the Americans seemed totally unwilling to listen to what we had to suggest.

Our proposal calls for a drastic reform in several aspects of the American economic system. Our suggestions are essentially identical to those contained in the MIT study and the "Global Competition" report noted earlier. Implementing a few of these reforms is not going to take Americanism out of the American way of life any more than the modernization Japan undertook at the prodding of Commodore Perry's fleet in the mid-19th century deprived Japanese of their Japaneseness.

We have come to a juncture today when everything about the Japan-U.S. relationship should be reconsidered and redefined. To go on relying on the assumptions and procedures of the past will prevent us from building a truly equal, strong partnership between our two countries. Japan will continue to need America, and surely the United States will continue to need Japan.

It is inconsistent with this reality for Washington, for example, to make such demands as that Japan cut down on savings. Meanwhile, the IMF says it would be impossible to supply funds to Eastern Europe and the developing countries around the world without Japan's financial resources.

The superpowers staked their destinies on the mad rush to develop nuclear arms that promised only global holocaust, and today we can see that economic strength, not military might, will shape the new high-tech civilization now in its formative period. This historical reality calls for reexamination, both qualitative and quantitive, of the Japan-U.S. security system. Japan has often been criticized by Americans for taking a "free ride" on U.S. military power, but it was the United States, after all, that refused Japan the chance to shoulder its due share of the burden by developing a defense system suitable to its own needs.

The era of ideological confrontation is over. Today Japan can assist other countries working to modernize themselves in areas where we are best qualified, by transfer and sharing of its technologies, including management know-how. It can supply Third World countries with the information-related infrastructure indispensable to modernization. It can select an East European country of promise and make it a test site for economic development through intensive cooperation and investment. Japanese politicians themselves remain unaware of these possibilities, but the United States, especially, should pay more attention to my country's potential in contributing to a better world, if it hopes to keep Japan as its close partner.

Shintaro Ishihara is a member of the Japanese Diet. An English-language version of "The Japan That Can Say No" will be published in February by Simon & Schuster.