The Japanese had been my last hope. I'd watched up-scale parents turn their children into money-grubbers. I'd observed middle-class parents using their children as the means of competing with each other. I'd seen young-couple-on-the-make parents treat their children as obstacles to their own success. I'd seen down- scale parents leave their children to their own devices, academically and morally.

But Japanese parents, I had thought, were managing pretty well. Oh, sure, they put a lot of pressure on their children to do well in school, but I took that to be a product of the way the Japanese educational system works. The impressive thing was how smart, how confident and how self-disciplined Japanese children seemed to turn out.

The Japanese have let me down. I've just read a New York Times report that Japanese parents, for all the advantage that their pro- family traditions and their ethnic homogeneity give them, are plagued by some of the same problems that beset their American counterparts--and for some of the same reasons, including pressure to succeed.

The news reports are startling to those of us who always thought of Japan as somehow special: Yokohama teen-agers assaulting a group of vagrants, killing three of them; a physically handicapped teacher stabbing a student after weeks of being abused and attacked by a group of boys; a 14-year-old girl beaten for three hours by a dozen of her classmates.

Most of the violent acts occurred during the anxiety-producing entrance exam period, which determines which young Japanese go on to top universities and which are condemned to working-class existences.

"Most parents," the mother of a third-grader told the Times, "are saturated with the idea that to go to a first-rank university leads to a job in a big company and that leads to a happy life."

But is it a happy life they want for their children? My guess is that a lot of these parents, like a growing number of American parents, would be thoroughly perplexed if they were offered a choice of happiness or success for their children (just as they would be perplexed if you offered them the choice of wealth or happiness for themselves). They might insist that the two things aren't separable, or that they needn't be mutually exclusive. But if they were forced to choose, I suspect a lot of them would opt for academic or economic success. Children who are happy but only marginally successful bring little prestige to their parents.

I don't mean to suggest that some parents want their children to be unhappy. The parents featured in that recent Newsweek magazine article, "Bringing Up Superbaby," surely wanted their children to be happy. But that isn't why they were pushing and shoving to get them into the "right" preschools, or buying them sawed- off violins, or shelling out money for the Better Baby Institute. They were doing these things, and buying books on baby math and pre-speech reading and computer programming for toddlers, because they want their children to be winners in a society they view as intensely competitive.

Ask these parents, or their Japanese counterparts, and they'll insist they want what is best for their children. But the way they go about it is more than a little frightening. A few of them might succeed in rearing geniuses. More of them are likely to wind up with driven, miserable adolescents. And some might be shocked to see that they have produced the senseless violence of the sort that is on the increase in Japan.

Obviously I'm not suggesting that parents shouldn't try to enhance the intellectual development of their offspring. But surely there must be something to be said for backing off and letting children be children.