Developers of the minicar and the minitelevision set, the Japanese also seem to have perfected the minigovernment.

In 1967, they concluded that when it comes to government, small is beautiful. They set a limit -- 506,571 -- on the number of white-collar workers the central government could employ.

Fourteen years later, despite a larger populaton and a rapidly expanding economy, the limit still stands at 506,571, and Japan is spending a lower percentage of its gross national product on government than any Western nation. In fact, Japan's bureaucracy has become slightly smaller over the years and the current trend is to keep it that way.

"Our support is from public opinion," observes Hisao Tsukamoto, a bureaucrat whose agency polices the public payroll. "Japan has the smallest government in the world."

His statistics bear him out. Including defense forces, the Japanese national and local governments have 45 employes for every thousand people in the population. By comparison, the United States has 82, Britain 109, France 83 and West Germany 76.

Japan's feat is unususal in an age in which Western democracies have obeyed Parkinson's Law, Which suggests that bureaucracies inevitably expand to fill their allotted space.

Moreover, the Japanese experience does not stem from any public outrage over lazy and inefficient bureaucrats. Indeed, the civil servant here is a person of enormous prestige, enjoying the trust and confidence of the public. Civil service is an elite profession that routinely draws the best and the brightest from the highest ranking universities.

It was Japan's bureaucracy that directed and molded the extraordinary economic advance of the 1960s. Senior civil servants draft most of the legislation passed by the parliament and exert political influence in almost every sphere.

"The Japanese bureaucrat is both competent and powerful," says Masaru Nishio, professor of public administration at Tokyo University. "It is very different from the United States, where the top elites from college go into business. Japan and France are very similar, in that the people's acceptance of the bureaucracy is very high -- they think they are capable people."

The confidence, paradoxically, may by one reason that the number of pulbic servants in Japan is so low. The job of paring the payrolls each years to stay within the legal limit is left to a public body, the Administrative Management Agency.

Each year, that agency tells the government ministries how many employes they can budgt for in the coming year.Some gain, some lose, and, as in bureaucracies everywhere, there are screams of anguish from the losers.

"It is very hard," says Tsukamoto, who is deputy director of the agency's management division. "No office wants the number of its personnel decreased and all of them believe they should increase their services and the scope of their business."

In Japan, no one simply orders another person to do something, so Tsukamoto and his colleagues spend countless hours explaining, cajoling, and ultimately persuading. The Cabinet in theory can make the final cuts, but never in its history has the Administrative Management Agency been overruled. Besides, there is no loophole through that ceiling of 506,571.

Public payrolls are also slimmed by a process within the powerful Ministry of France, which has overall budget control.

The ministry promulgates what in the United States would be known as "sunset laws" that require periodic review of all government subsidies and aid programs. After a period, usually five years, each program is examined to see whether it is doing what it is supposed to do. Usually, the ministry's rulings stic,, although it has nott been able to slash the agricultural subsidies that keep rice prices high despite growing surpluses.

Backing up the administrative controls over personnel costs are a set of general circumstances that also work to keep the payrolls low.

Politically, the government has been controlled for 26 years by the conservative, business-oriented Liberal Democratic Party, which has a vested interest in low taxes and low public expenditures. Businessman work comfortably with bureaucrats here, but they also act to guarantee that their profits are not undercut by high taxes. Japan's tax rate is considerably lower than those in the United States and Western Europe.

As a result, the levels of many public services in Japan are low by comparison. School and college classes are large -- an elementary classroom with 40 children is common. Surprisingly in a country whose private sector glitters with success, public sanitation and sewage facilities are not up to Western standands. Japan never has embarked on a Western-style welfare system with thousands of case workers on the payroll.

Japan's minor role in world politics also helps keep payrolls down.The postwar public resistance to military spending has permitted only a modest defense force. Only 2.5 people for each 1,000 population are involved in defense, compared to 13.4 in the United States, 8.4 in France, and 10.7 in West Germany.

Japan's Foreign Ministry also is sparsely manned. Counting embassies overseas and foreign nationals employed in them, the ministry has about a third as many employes as the U.S. Senate Department.

Some authorities also credit the unusually cooperative nature of Japanese society with keeping public payrolls to a minimum. Tadao Uchida, a professor of theoretical economics at Tokyo University, recently described the phenomenon of "unofficial administration" within the private sector. Local neighborhood groups are influential and often carry out minor tasks that local governments perform in other countries. If the local sanitation department changes the days for garbage pickups, it is the neighborhood association, not the government, that notifies the residents.

On the national scale, Chida noted, trade and business associations often perform chores that government bureaus otherwise would do. They collect statistics, pass out government decrees, and in some cases even participate with government agencies in enforcing business regulations.