ASIAN AMERICANS excel in science and technology, education and business, but they have been conspicuously absent from the corridors of power. Now they are gradually inching into politics -- though they still have a long way to go before they match their own accomplishments in other fields or equal the influence wielded by other ethnic groups.

Jay Kim, a Republican businessman and mayor of Diamond Bar, a Los Angeles suburb, is slated to become the first Korean American in Congress. Nao Takasugi, a Republican entrepreneur of Japanese origin from the town of Oxnard, will be the first Asian-American member of the California state assembly since 1978. Tony Lam, a restaurant owner from Orange County, Calif., edged into a seat on the Westminster city council, the first Vietnamese refugee in America to win public office. Around the country, about 100 Asian Americans ran for local, state and national posts and probably more entered primary races.

Statistically their performance may seem insignificant. Kim's victory adds only one Asian American to the five already in Congress. Asian Americans total 10 percent of California's population, but Takasugi's success gives them only a solitary voice in the state legislature. (About 40 percent of the 7.3 million Americans of Asian descent reside in California.) Nor are they a political force in San Francisco and New York, where their numbers are substantial.

From the Asian-American perspective, however, what was impressive was the fact that so many competed at all. Many Asian Americans see the election as a breakthrough. Alicia Wang, the first Asian-American woman member of the Democratic National Committee, calls it "the beginning of a wave."

As voters, however, Asian Americans did not ride the crest of the wave. They backed the loser, President Bush, by a margin wider than that of any other racial or ethnic group, giving him 55 percent of their ballots. Only 29 percent of their votes went to Bill Clinton and 16 percent to Ross Perot.

Asian-American political awareness, though modest, is starting to grow. The phenomenon partly stems from the riots that roiled Los Angeles last spring. Korean-American merchants, who were ignored by the police as they sought protection against black and Hispanic looters, have been increasingly outspoken in demanding their rights. The upheaval also reminded other Asian Americans of their vulnerability to overt and subtle racial prejudice, like the tendency of other Americans to treat them as foreigners, no matter whether their families have been in the United States for generations, or whether they are naturalized -- the case of most who have arrived within the past 20 years. Trade tensions with Japan early this year, for example, exposed Japanese Americans to hate mail and verbal abuse, such as the graffiti smeared across the walls of a community center in southern California: "Nip, go back to Asia."

Still, very few Asian Americans link politics with their problems. A study conducted by Prof. Don T. Nakanishi of the University of California at Los Angeles discovered that Asian Americans lag far behind the more than 72 percent of Californians who are registered voters. Only 43 percent of the state's eligible Japanese Americans are registered, and the figures are sharply lower for Chinese, Indian, Filipino and Korean Americans, with Vietnamese at the bottom. Those who do register often designate themselves as independents, which can bar them from voting in pivotal primaries. Their lack of party affiliation further hinders their ability to act collectively. Nationally they accounted for only about 1 percent of the voters in the last election -- or one-third of their representation in the population.

There are various explanations for their aversion to politics. Aside from Japanese Americans, most are immigrants, numbers of whom are too busy earning a living and educating their children to focus on public affairs. In traditional Asian fashion, they also set the welfare of their families as their chief priority, relegating civic duty to a low spot on their agenda. Though they may be citizens, many feel that as newcomers they are "guests," who as a courtesy to their hosts, should remain silent. Those from countries with despotic regimes, like the Chinese and Vietnamese, either distrust government or are baffled by the democratic process. As recent arrivals they are frequently riveted more on developments in their native lands than on events in America.

Nor do they regard politics as a reputable career, an attitude that mirrors their remembrance of the corruption and venality that pervades much of public life in Asia. Art Wang, a Chinese-American lawyer and member of the Washington state legislature, says: "My mother sees me not as a politician but as an attorney, a profession that in her eyes has a higher status." The crudeness of politics also repels Asian sensibilities. As Judy Chu, a Chinese American and former mayor of Monterey Park, Calif., which is heavily Asian, observes: "Taking a lot of risks and a lot of criticism, asserting a point of view and talking about yourself -- that is not in the Asian nature."

Their diversity further complicates the role of Asian Americans in politics. Though often termed a community, particularly by activists seeking to unify them, they are actually a patchwork quilt of distinct minorities whose languages, religions, food and customs differ widely. Thus, to portray them as cohesive is as misleading as to equate the Swedish with Spanish Americans because both are of European extraction. They are also haunted by memories. Chinese and Korean Americans, recalling Japan's atrocities against their forbears in World War II, often resent Japanese Americans. Vietnamese bear ancient grudges against Cambodians, and Hindus and Moslems retain their animosities. So, unlike many other ethnic groups, Asian Americans are often unable to cooperate. In a local Los Angeles election last year, to cite a case, the three Asian Americans in the race could not compromise on a single candidate and thereby ceded to the white contestant.

The deplorable history of Asians in America is another factor. Though most Chinese pioneers planned to return to China, many hoped to assimilate. "If the privileges of your laws are open to us," wrote one group to the governor of California in 1852, "some of us will undoubtedly acquire your habits, your language, your ideas, your feelings, your morals, your forms and become citizens of your country." But a 1790 federal law limited naturalization to "free white persons" and even after the Civil War, when Congress granted citizenship to freed black slaves, Chinese were denied the right. The ban lasted until 1943, and it took a decade more before all Asians were entitled to naturalization.

Legend to the contrary, the Chinese were not passive. Their elites hired prominent white lawyers to fight their cause in the courts but, bowing to xenophobic political factions, Congress passed the Exclusion Act of 1882 -- the only federal law aimed at a specific nationality, which restricted the admission of Chinese into the United States. Most Chinese immigrants had left their wives in China, and their population in America shrank to a society of bachelors personified in the lonely laundryman.

Coming later, the Japanese had a different experience. They brought or imported brides who bore them children. Citizens by birth, the nisei, or second generation, entered politics as early as the 1920s. They founded the Japanese American Citizens League, now the group's main organization. Intensely loyal to the United States, most complied with the internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens, after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The League, under new leaders, later promoted the struggle to win redress for the internees but the memory of the episode -- one of the most shameful in U.S. history -- still evokes in Japanese Americans the dread that, if another confrontation with Japan occurred, it could happen again.

The first Asian American who vaulted into national office was Dalip Singh Saund, a Punjabi Sikh who flourished as a California farmer. In 1956, his white neighbors sent him to the House of Representatives, where he served three terms. But the big break for Asian Americans came with Hawaiian statehood in 1959, which gave the Senate such figures as Hiram Fong, a Chinese-American millionaire, and later Daniel Inouye, a Japanese American who, as a soldier in the U.S. Army, lost an arm fighting in World War II. California subsequently elected Sen. Samuel I. Hayakawa, an eccentric Japanese-American professor of semantics. Outside of Hawaii and California, however, Asian-American candidates have not fared well.

Lacking solid Asian-American constituencies, they must reach a broad spectrum of voters. That obstacle has been hurdled by Reps. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) and Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), both of Japanese descent, and now Jay Kim. Each of their districts contains only a small fraction of Asian Americans. Art Wang, the Washington state legislator whose Tacoma district is less than 2 percent Asian American, recruited Asian-American volunteers to raise funds and ring doorbells while he struck a chord that resonated among white, black and other voters. As he reflects, "You can't paint yourself into an ethnic corner. You run as a politician who happens to be an Asian American, not as an Asian-American politician."

Conversely, Asian American voters often prefer white politicians, whom they believe have more clout than Asian Americans. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) consistently returns to Congress from a district with the largest number of Asian Americans outside Hawaii. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), two of the most conservative members of Congress, are regularly supported by the Koreans, Vietnamese and Cambodians in their constituencies. In the contest for mayor of San Francisco last year, most of Chinatown supported Frank Jordan, a former police chief, over Tom Hsieh, the Chinese-American contender.

Besides voting for white candidates, Asian Americans bankroll them. Among ethnic groups, they are second only to Jewish Americans as political contributors. Politicians covet them because they donate handsomely without demanding favors in exchange and are willing to "pay now, talk later." Many underwrote Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House subcommittee on Asian affairs, and openly lamented his defeat in the primary in September. George Bush's star fundraiser was Zachariah Zachariah, a Florida cardiologist of Indian origin, who singlehandedly amassed almost $2 million from Asian Americans for the president's re-election race. One of candidate Bill Clinton's more profitable evenings was a dinner in Monterey Park at which the Asian-American guests chipped in a total of $200,000.

It should not, then, be surprising that Asian Americans lean toward the GOP. Whatever their incomes, many Asian Americans cherish the old-fashioned virtues stressed by Republicans, such as hard work and family solidarity, and tend to disdain the kind of welfarism once advocated by the Democrats. The Republicans scored points as well among fiercely anti-communist Vietnamese and Koreans. Bush also won popularity for the record number of Asian Americans he appointed to top federal jobs, among them Elaine Chao, the former Peace Corps director, Julia Chang Bloch, the ambassador to Nepal, and Wendy Lee Gramm, head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.

In general, Asian Americans whose roots in the United States go back two or three generations are likely to be more liberal than recent arrivals. Familiar with American ways, they feel entitled to assert their rights. Bill Clinton, whose aides include Melinda Yee, who has been active in Chinese-American organizations, has named Robert Matsui's wife Doris, who worked for women's groups, to his transition team. His support largely came from younger Asian Americans, many of them preoccupied with ethnic identity, minority problems, urban renewal and other such questions.

The 1992 elections show that Asian Americans are slowly learning that they "need more chutzpah," to borrow Alan Dershowitz's advice to American Jews. They have learned that they cannot truly protect and advance the interests of their communities without running candidates for public office or exerting their influence through effective lobbies. Some months ago, addressing a jittery Japanese-American audience during a spurt of racist harassment, Michael Yamaki of the Los Angeles Police Commission made a statement that not many Asian Americans would have uttered a decade earlier: "The bottom line is that you have to stand up for yourself."

Stanley Karnow is working on a book on the Asian experience in America. His book, "In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines," won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1990.