ON A FOGGY morning in a shipping lane off Japan, the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered Polaris submarine, somehow while surfacing rammed and sank a Japanese freighter. The collision, taking the lives of the freighter captain and a crewman, might have been put down merely as a regrettable accident, but for one thing. The skipper of the sub, and a patrol plane overhead, left the scene without picking up the survivors, who drifted for 19 hours. The Japanese government was not notified for 35 hours. This hit-and-run aspect has since provoked a storm in Japan.

As well it might. The tradition of the sea and international law alike dictated a rescue effort. The Navy tentatively suggests that the George Washington surfaced briefly, saw nothing in the soup, and figured whatever it had struck was okay. Other observers, including but not limited to Japanese in the opposition and press, ask whether the skipper either lacked a proper concern for the freighter or calculated that on balance it would be best to clear the area, given the likely hot reaction in Japan to an accident involving a nuclear-powered, nuclear-weapon-carrying submarine.

Yesterday, 11 days after the fact, a reluctant Navy assumed financial liability and agreed to work out Japanese claims, even while its investigation of the American captain's personal responsibility goes on. Just how successful this will be in limiting the political damage is unclear, however. The Japanese have an extraordinary continuing sensitivity to anything having to do with nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants, especially in circumstances of accident. In this instance, the damage was compounded by neglect of the survivors. This offended the Japanese sense of propriety and courtesy, and proposed comparisons of American behavior with the harassment commonly practiced by the Soviet navy.

Other things being equal, all this might be set aside after a period of recrimination and regret. But other things are not equal. Japan is recalibrating its defense posture in the light of changing perceptions of American and Soviet power. What would be most helpful to this process is a sense that the United States is a reliable and steady patron, as careful of Japan's requirements, military and psychological, as of its own. This is where the hit-and-run character of the submarine incident will hurt most.