American corporations, battered by relentless Japanese competition, are adopting their rival's methods as a way to stem the growing economic power of the Asian nation.

From the dark, dreary auto assembly line of Detroit to the bright, fluorescent-lighted quarters of California electronics firms, American managers' are utilizing such typically Japanese concepts as long-term employment, quality control and worker participation as ways of boosting sagging productivity.

"The Americans now see the capability of the Japanese to work so quickly, so effectively, and it scares the hell out of them," said William Ouchi, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the Stanford University school of business. "Now they are beginning to ask 'Why can't we act that way?'"

Ouchi, a Japanese-American specializing in the application of Japanese methods to the American workplace, has worked as a management consultant to such major corporations as TRW, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard and Chysler Corp. He said he believes interest in Japenese systems is on the rise, and claims to have turned down several six-figure offers to help implement those systems for U.S. companies.

Sparking this increased fascination with Japanese methods have been studies detailing the rapid increases in worker productivity within that nation. Since the early 1960s, according to Labor Department studies, Japanese workers have increased their output by better than 3 times the annual rate for American workers.

Faced with the unavoidable conclusion that their methods simply aren't working well anymore, top American executives representing companies ranging from Lockheed to Chrysler, have been paid to study, analyze and prepare ways to copy the successful Japanese approach.

"We contacted our friends at Mitsubishi several years back over in Japan to see why they weren't having the type of problems we were," said Chrysler executive Charles W. Joiner. "We studied their system and started changing ours."

"People are finally starting to look at the Japanese and they see they are doing something right," says Don Dewar, who studied Japanese methods for Lockheed Corp., then becoming an independent consultant. "You can see they are right up there at the top of the heap in terms of productivity."

TRW's Marlin-Rockwell division, a Jamestown, N.Y., ball-bearing manufacturer, has over the last three years steadily begun changing over to management styles similar to those practiced by their Japanese competitors.

The rigidly hierarchical and regimented system once employed within the TRW's division, for instance, has now largely been replaced by the fluid, more egalitarian, Japanese-style system, which stresses participation in decision-making by all workers down to the assembly-line level.

"Japanese people are no different from us, they're no smarter, their education system isn't any better," said James Hamerstone, manager of organizational development at Malin-Rockwell. "The reason they outperform us is because they have everyone involved in the industrial process. They treat people differently."

At some of Marlin-Rockwell's five plants, all employes have been put on salary, and time clocks have been eliminated, along with such things as executive parking places, entrances and separate dining areas. In addition, managers are now instructed to spend more time soliciting ideas and suggestions for solving industrial problems from the workers on the factory floor.

This new approach, Hamerstone maintains, has already produced large benefits for the company. Within three years absentee rates at some plants have dropped by as much as 50 percent, turnover has been reduced five-fold and productivity has increased by better than a third, according to Hamerstone.

Similar results are also being reported from a few experiments with Japanese-style management methods in the hard-pressed American auto industry, which has seen Japan triple its share of the world motor vehicle market in less than 15 years.

Ford, Chrysler and General Motors have all initiated at least some preliminary program toward making some changes to put them closer into the envied Japanese pattern.

"The way we try to do things has been archaic, particularly in the older industries like ours," said Charles W. Joiner, director of district sales, marketing and parts division of Chrysler Corp. "There's a lot of top-down management. The worker has no input into the process. It's all been the Henry Ford assembly-line kind of thing - let's idiot-proof the job."

Since 1975, Joiner's division has been reorganized to increase worker participation, quality control and teamwork. Although Chrysler as a corporation is in precarious financial shape, Joiner's 4,000-person section has enjoyed a more than 10 percent increase in productivity, reduced inventories and significantly higher profits.

Similarly small-scale experiments are now taking place within the Buick motor division of General Motors, where unprecedented steps are being taken at some plants to involve workers in problem-solving and help them develop a sense of "corporate community" by staging such things as special product review nights for workers' families.

Frank Colvin, Buick's general works engineer, says he believes a strong sense of company loyalty and cohesion among factory workers has been among the major elements fueling Japan's enormous economic surge. Many American workers, he says, lack any sense of corporate identify or social purpose, things which he insists must be provided for them by their corporate employers.

"I think the Japanese are right as far as modern management is concerned," said Colvin, who studied Japanese methods at Stanford. "There's a gap, an affiliation need that's not being spoken for on the outside. If we can provide that in the workplace, it will be to our advantage."

"It will help us to be competitive and change the balance of payments," said Colvin. "If the Japanese management style is successful in competition with us, then the same kind of attitudes among workers in this country will lend a competitive edge for our products against them."

While enthusiasm for imitating the Japanese competitors runs high among some top U.S. auto executives, there remains widespread suspicion toward any attempt to impose this corporate community concept among union officials. Some have openly denounced the Japanese system as being overly paternalistic and inimical to unionism.

"All they have is benevolent paternalism there," siad Jay Dale, spokesman for the United Auto Workers union. "The Japanese auto union is not a strong union. They don't have the traditions we have here, they don't have an adversary relationship. I don't think you can transfer that whole paternal system here."

Much of that Japanese system originated in the United States from the theories of such prominent business consultants as W. Edward Deming and J.M. Duran, both of whom are considered somewhat like industrial demigods among Japanese managers.

Faced with scare resources and a large population, Japan has as a nation turned to the human factor orientation of these business theorists as a way to gain the competitive edge in world markets.

Japan's highly disciplined, efficient and productive work force was so successful against competing nations that Japanese companies began in the early 1970s to expand their manufacturing enterprises in the United States.

Using their now-standard management practices with American workers, they have already been able to succeed in this country in areas where native industries have often failed.

In 1974, for instance, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. took over the television factory in Chicago. Today that same plant is flourishing and produces some of the finest quality sets in the nation, according to recent market testing studies.

Similarly, Japanese managers at the large $40 million Sony television factory near San Diego have been able to use their participators' management techniques and a virtually guaranteed employment system to boost production last year by better than 25 percent. American workers, insists plant manager Mike Morimoto, can clearly produce as well as Japanese if the right system is used.

"Our system can work in America, but it might take a long time for your companies to start doing it," Morimoto said as he walked along the smooth-running Sony assembly line.

"It will take a change in the thinking of top management, where they start thinking about other things than just making money. They have to go to participative management. Look, these people love our system and are doing great. After all, people are people."