U.S.-Japan relations are at a tense point, as new trade talks start against a backdrop of resentment over Japan's limited role in the Gulf crisis. At the same time (you've heard of deja vu?), two major American auto makers and the United Auto Workers seek tighter quota limits on Japanese cars.

Criticism of Germany's failure to offer sufficient help in the Gulf crisis was as bitterly noted and resented as Japan's in the congressional debate over war powers for President Bush. But Japan triggers more antagonism in part because its exports are highly visible -- in cars and consumer goods -- while Germany scores its successes mostly in machinery and other capital goods, less vulnerable to criticism.

Like Germany, Japan gives first priority to its own prosperity. Neither measures up to global responsibilities -- at least, the way that Washington defines their logical roles. Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama's statement in Washington Jan. 14 that Japan "will consider" further aid in the Gulf did nothing to assuage anti-Japanese reaction.

Both Germany and Japan generate fear because their economies are seen as different from other Western economies, German professor Hans W. Maull points out in the current Foreign Affairs. At a cruder level, the gut feeling is that they will become dominant, ejecting us from our No. 1 position, especially as we waste more wealth and manpower in defending Persian Gulf oil supplies for everyone.

Thus, a second round of negotiations with Japan over reducing artificial trade barriers or "impediments" could not come at a more difficult juncture. The tension is exacerbated by unhappiness in Washington about Japan's role in the recent collapse of the Uruguay Round of global trade talks. By refusing to open its market even a crack to rice imports, Japan established a solid front with German and other European nations protecting costly subsidies for agriculture.

Meanwhile, Ford and Chrysler, having failed to meet the competitive challenge of Japanese cars in their own showrooms, are resorting to an old dodge: a demand that Japanese cars be kept out of reach of American buyers by reducing the allowable quota for sale.

Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca and Ford President Harold A. Poling refuse to accept the lesson of the '80s that quotas don't solve their problems. Along with the UAW, they want Washington to negotiate a deal with Japan to cut its share of the market below last year's 32 percent penetration level. And this time, as The Wall Street Journal points out, protecting Detroit would be at the expense not only of consumers, who would pay higher prices, but of American workers at Japanese-owned plants in the United States.

Across the Pacific, anti-American sentiment is fomented by popular nationalists such as Shintaro Ishihara. Ishihara is accurate in reporting that Japan has beat the pants off America in many areas where it used to dominate. But he feeds understandable antagonism in Congress with a new American edition of "The Japan That Can Say No." A key Ishihara idea: The Pentagon could be rendered "totally helpless" if Japan sold computer chips to Russia instead of the United States.

In demagoguery, Ishihara ranks right up there with Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, who played on anti-Japanese sentiment when he set out to block Japanese ownership of tourist concessions in Yosemite National Park. There must be more important issues for a Cabinet officer to confront -- and that message was conveyed to Lujan by the White House. Sources there feel that Lujan played the fool.

For years, administration officials say, the Interior Department failed to ensure an equitable return for the government from concessionaires' sales in national parks. Taxpayers are entitled to a fair deal -- from domestic or foreign companies. But the sale of hot dogs in Yosemite as a result of the Matsushita takeover of MCA hardly constitutes a genuine "foreign ownership" problem. Or did Lujan want equal rights to sell sushi at Hakone National Park near Mt. Fuji?

The essential facts about the U.S.-Japanese "trade problem" remain unchanged, despite escalation of tensions: Japanese protectionism in trade and investment, or barriers on American lawyers or other professionals, are unacceptable and must be strenuously contested. But a tit-for-tat American response is not the answer.

There are real economic differences between America and Japan, but we should be aware that these can be pulled out of context by a vocal anti-Japan group that already identifies Japan as an enemy more dangerous than the Soviet Union. To recover its competitive edge, America must make a national commitment to improve the quality of its products, its work force and its educational system.

Meanwhile, diplomacy -- not trade retaliation -- is the right way to deal with America's foreign-policy problem with Tokyo (and Bonn) over the level and kind of support in the Gulf crisis.

Above all in these anxious times, we have to keep our cool.