Last summer, as Japan was preparing for an election to choose a new prime minister, the public opinion polling apparatus of the Asahi newspapers set out to discover whether Japanese think politics is important in their lives.

In a representatives sampling of voting-age citizens, each was asked if he regarded politics as something "close to yourself." The response was unmistakably negative - 63 percent answered "no."

It was not an uncommon finding. A series of recent polls depict Japanese as indifferent to politics, suspicious of politicians, disenchanted with the government and unenthusiastic about alternatives. The proportion of those supporting none of the political parties is rising. And a large majority thinks the current election will be unfair.

Cynicism and apathy have been a mark of American elections, too, particularly in the post-Vietnam, post Watergate era. But by Japanese standards. American attitudes toward politics seem almost enthusiastic.

Examples:

When asked to name the candidate most suitable to be president of the Liberal Democratic Party, and thus to become prime minister, two-thirds either gave no answer or said it didn't make any difference.

Half the Japanese of voting age consistently say they have no interest in the current election, which is a primary that will lead to choice of the nation's prime minister.

Asked if they think this election will be conducted fairly, only 15 percent said "yes" according to a Yomiuri newspaper survey. Sixty-three percent said it would not and the rest had no matter.

In a sense, the polls say that Japanese regard politics as so unimportant that it can be safely left to the politicians. Part of their attitude may be due to the parliamentary system in which the prime minister is in effect chosen by Liberal Democratic Party members of the national legislature. Ultimately, the chief executive is selected in the back-room trading of party factions, where ideology and public sympathies play little part.

"A philosophy of rationalism does not help to understand Japanese politics," observed one skilled practioner, Seijuro Shiokawa, who is Prime Minister Takeo Fukudais campaign manager.

The Japanese Political character was formed, he says, in feudal days when the combat of warlords determined national leadership. It is largely the same today when the top politicians and their factions clash.

"Japan is not a participant culture like the United States," said Kan Ori, a political scientist at Sophia University who has lectured at the University of Minnesota and studied American politics. There are no grass-roots organizations except for factional groups loyal to individual politicians.

Ori cites an old Japanese saying that the less one involves himself in public affairs the better. Party attachments are weak, most citizens preferring to identify themselves primarily with factional groups rather than broad party organizations.

Moreover, disenchantment with parties seems to be growing. A poll by the Yomiuri newspapers found that 30 percent do not identify in any way with any party; a decade ago only 10 percent disavowed all parties. Both the Liberal Democratic party and the Japan Socialist Party have lost ground in that period.

Takafumi Hara, chief of Yomiuri's opinion research division, said the growing number who support none of the parties are people "who are indifferent to the present system. They are trying to search for something, some way to solve their dissatisfactions and they don't know what to do."

Hara said the 30 percent who reject parties represent two distinct types of people. One has little education and very little knowledge of public affairs. The other is highly educated and has "lots of knowledge" about politics but is always unhappy with the results.

"Their expectations are always disappointed," he said.

In the 1960s, he added, Japanese, were single-minded people who had one overriding goal - high economic growth. Politics then seemed to serve that end. Now their goals are more varied and there is more confusion about the ability of politics to serve them.

There appears to be declining support, too, for the people who run Japanese governments. In the 1960s, polls showed, the proportion of people who supported various Cabinets tended to run above 35 percent and former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka in 1972 scored a high of 62 percent. But for most of Fukuda's two-year tenure, fewer than 25 percent have supported his Cabinet and only recently has its popularity reached 30 percent. A support rate that would be considered disastrous for an American president.