TOKYO -- Here's a modest proposal to improve our country's stature and image around the world: Ban the sledgehammer.

Swept up in the recent wave of animosity against Japan, Americans here and there have been letting off steam with some literal Japan-bashing. They find an old Honda or Toyota sedan and start bashing away at it with a sledgehammer.

This probably makes the hammer-wielders feel good for a minute or two and may even have some social purpose. At one Honda-pounding session in Ohio, according to CNN, people paid $1 for each swat with the sledgehammer, with the proceeds going to aid for the unemployed.

But for these small benefits, the United States pays a horrendous price. Every smash of the sledgehammer is a public relations disaster for our country all over the world.

The photos and videotape of the sledgehammer bashings are published and broadcast everywhere, over and over again. They probably get much more exposure overseas than in the United States. Here in Japan, I've seen the CNN tape of the Ohio bash-a-Honda party at least three dozen times in the past month.

These images convey a powerful message about America -- a message that is painfully wrong. They portray a country that can only crunch what others create, a country that can bash but not build, a country that knows how to get mad but not how to get even.

To make the point more vividly, Japanese TV stations these days are dusting off the old tape of that unfortunate day in 1987 when six sledgehammer-wielding members of Congress gathered on the Capitol lawn and smashed a Toshiba radio.

This tape is a perennial favorite for the Japanese because it fits all their worst stereotypes of mindless U.S. politicians driven by hatred for Asians. For the same reason, the recent "joke" by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) that the American atomic bomb was "tested in Japan" has also received big play here.

Journalist James Fallows was living in Asia at the time of that Toshiba-bashing at the Capitol. He discussed the case with Lee Quan Yew, then prime minister of Singapore. There is generally little love lost between Singapore and Japan, but those American sledgehammers made Lee completely sympathetic with the Japanese. "The skills, the knowledge, the capacity to dream up the next product -- that cannot be broken up with a sledgehammer," Lee said.

The point that is lost amid the bang of the sledgehammers is that skill, knowledge and creative capacity can be found by the carload in the United States. Just ask Japanese consumers, who have made numerous high-quality U.S. products number one in market share here.

In every Japanese personal computer, the central microprocessor chip -- the highest of all high-tech products -- is American. The two best-selling computer software programs in Japan are both American. Coca-Cola has a cool 85 percent of the cola market. Japan's best-selling razor is Schick, with Gillette a close second. The five top-grossing movies here last year were all American.

TV pictures of people writing software or designing new microprocessors would do wonders for America's stature overseas. But ordinary scenes like that can't compete with the drama of angry people smashing cars. As long as Americans swing sledgehammers, that's the image of our country that the world will see.

This image, incidentally, makes the Japanese feel that American complaints about unfair trade have no more intellectual content than the sledgehammer.

The U.S. Customs Service the other day issued an exhaustive ruling on the domestic content of U.S.-assembled Hondas. Japan's TV Asahi network illustrated this story on the evening news with -- what else? -- a tape of Americans taking a sledgehammer to a Honda. In other words, the detailed Customs study must be just one more mindless bash.

Americans' anger at Japan could be a valuable asset for the United States if it "gets the competitive juices flowing," as White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater observed.

Not that there's no reason for some of the anger. But Americans who are determined to compete harder against Japan and other global trading rivals can do so by working to make better products, by saving money so it can be used for capital investment, by voting for politicians who really will cut the debt, by turning off the TV at night and getting the kids to do some extra math instead.

But for the sake of America's image on the TV screens of the world, let's drop the sledgehammers.

The writer, The Post's Northeast Asia bureau chief, is based in Tokyo.