The present fuss over car imports points up a basic flow in American dealings with Japan. The United States keeps trying to load into the Japanese responsibility for easing acute but essentially small -- and temporary -- domestic problems.

But this country has never asked the Asian giant to undertake large and difficult tasks set in a global perspective. As a result, petty hassles, mutual frustration and sordid bargains mark the relations between the two economic powerhouses.

An undoubted Japanese debt to the United States lies at the root of the relationship. By its defense umbrella and free trade policy, this country has provided the basic climate for Japan's postwar success.

The Japanese have acknowledged their debt in the most profound way. From 1948 forward, they have been electing and reelecting and reelecting again the party that specializes in managing the American connection -- the Liberal Democrats. Without exception, all Japanese prime ministers have been prepared to pay a price for harmony with the United States.

Washington has not been loath to have the Japanese pay up. But the United States has left the definition of the ante to the pulling and hauling of domestic interests in Congress. Thus every recent American administration has made an urgent request to Tokyo for what are essentially peanuts.

The Kennedy administration, in order to secure passage of the 1962 Trade Act, persuaded the Japanese to limit their export of cotton textiles. The fight to achieve that goal was titanic. But the U.S. industry did not revive. Instead, the exports continued -- from other countries in Asia.

The Johnson administration made its special objective Japanese silence on Vietnam. Of course, the Unted States lost the war anyhow, and for a brief period there arose in Japan a wave of anti-American feeling based on opposition to the Vietnam war.

The Nixon administration, apart from negotiating a limit on Japanese exports of synthetic fibers, counted as its special trademark the forced sale to Japan of American planes. There was a temporary improvement in this country's balance of payments and a surge of business for Lockheed. But a strong dose of corruption was introduced into the Japanese-American connection with a consequent weakening of governments in both countries.

The Carter administration, to its credit, tried to enlist the Japanese in an effort to pull the whole industrialized world out of recession. But because the timing was off, the effort promoted inflation and a rapid fall of the dollar against the yen. Now, as a legacy to President-elect Reagan, the outgoing administration leaves unfinished business with Japan regarding auto reports and a larger share of the defense burden.

No doubt the Japanese can limit auto exports in a way that might provide a breathing spell for the Ford Motor Co. But the long-run future of the American auto companies lies in their capacity to compete against -- not be protected from -- foreign manufacturers.

Similarly, the United States and Japan can usefully do more joint planning on defense. But Japan ought not attempt a major military role. The strain on its domestic politics would be severe, and who really wants a Japan armed to the teeth anyway?

Much bigger interests, however, are shared by the United States and Japan. Energy research is one obvious field. The Japanese have the money, the technical skill, the organizational resources and the pressing need. Why not make them primarily responsible for developing synthetic fuels -- especially gasoline -- at a competitive price?

The so-called Third World countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America present another opportunity. The United States is probably going to have its hands full in ensuring security for the Persian Gulf. The European allies suffer from the stigma of colonialism. But Japanese business has already taken the lead in helping to industrialize disparate countries (for example, Taiwan and Brazil). So why not put Japan at the head of the industrial countries in their encounter with the developing world?

If only because they think small, the Japanese are not going to take on these tasks by themselves. So the essence of American policy toward Japan should be to upscale the relation. Americans need to stop asking the Japanese for small favors. The common interest lies in making big demands, demands in keeping with Japan's status as an economic giant.