John Dingell met Sadanori Yamanaka at 10 a.m. March 28. They sat facing each other across a row of finely polished tables in a spacious room on the seventh floor of an office building in downtown Tokyo.

"Such a pleasure to meet the Honorable Mr. Dingell," Japan's minister of international trade and industry said to the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "I understand you have served in Congress since 1954. I have served here since 1950. In this room, then, I have seniority."

Both men smiled anxiously. A subtle game of one-upmanship had begun between these two officials who symbolized so much about their countries and the trade problems they were about to discuss: Big John, as bulky and strong as the Ford Galaxy made in his hometown Detroit, and Yamanaka, half his measure, as compact and efficient as the Honda Civic that had invaded the U.S. market.

Detroit had the size, but Tokyo had the moves, and that is precisely how it went that day in March when Americans and Japanese sat down to discuss trade in general and the domestic-content legislation that was moving through the U.S. Congress in particular.

"Mr. Dingell," said Yamanaka, according to the recollections of several Americans in the room, "I hope we can discuss these very serious issues without resorting to stereotypes or ethnic commentary about Japs or little yellow people."

Neither Dingell nor any of the other nine members of the committee delegation on this Far East mission mistook Yamanaka's meaning. Obviously, he had been told that Dingell, during a private meeting with environmentalists here, had carelessly referred once to the Japanese as "little yellow people," a slip leaked to the press, to the chairman's embarrassment.

"Mr. Yamanaka, I am a Pole," said Dingell, calling upon his considerable diplomatic skills to recover from a most awkward situation. "We learn to take a lot of things, as long as they are said with a smile. We know that such things are only said about one's good friends."

The tone of the meeting had been set. It would be, as they say in diplomatic circles, and as a committee report later put it, a "full and frank discussion."

Yamanaka said his government understood U.S. trade problems and was trying to address them with voluntary export quotas for Japanese auto makers and eased import standards for U.S. goods sold in Japan. Dingell and his colleagues warned Yamanaka that Japan's efforts had been inadequate. They said inequitable marketing practices were forcing Congress to push restrictive trade bills to protect U.S. auto workers, legislation such as the domestic-content measure Dingell and the congressman seated next to him, Richard Ottinger of New York, had sponsored.

As the meeting ended, Yamanaka disappeared behind a side door for a moment and emerged carrying a Kodak Instamatic camera. He bent down in what the congressmen took to be an exaggerated picture-taking position and snapped away at his guests, making sure that they knew he was photographing them with an American-made camera.

He soon returned to his seat and reached for a cigarette, an American-made Pall Mall, silently but effectively reinforcing the point that U.S. products are sold in Japan. Then he pulled out an expensive gold lighter, opened it and struck the flint. "So sorry," said Yamanaka, looking first at the lighter and then at his guests. "French."

"It was not a performance that sent any of us away from there with a feeling that they were about to give us a damn thing," said Democrat Al Swift of Washington. "In fact, it was a bravura performance of them telling us we could go expletive deleted ourselves."

In understanding why the House Energy and Commerce Committee, until quite recently a bastion of free-trade advocacy, is expected to approve the domestic content bill later this week, the meeting that day in Tokyo is more revealing than all of the long debates about specific provisions of the protectionist legislation, which would require auto makers to use a certain percentage of American parts in cars they sell in the United States.

The bill, drafted and pushed by the United Auto Workers union, has its share of true believers. But about half of the 24 committee members expected to vote for it acknowledge--some privately, some quite openly--that they hope it never becomes law, that they are thankful the Senate is around to kill it, that it is bad public policy, that they are free-traders at heart, that the bill might very well cost as many U.S. jobs in and around the nation's ports as it would create in the auto and steel belt.

But, they add, the Japanese have it coming. If the Reagan administration will not send that message across the Pacific, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will.

Louisiana Democrat W.J. (Billy) Tauzin's first words at the opening mark-up session on the bill last week were: "I'm not sure that domestic content ought to become law. I'm not sure of that at all." Then he spent five minutes explaining that he would support it because the Japanese did not play fair.

Swift, an articulate former broadcaster, in his third term on the committee, represents that sentiment as clearly as anyone. During a recent interview in his office, he said:

"If I didn't have to vote on that bill until it got to the House floor, I might oppose it. But I can't think of anything that would send the Japanese the wrong message more than killing it in committee. That would be an ignominious death, and it can't be allowed to happen. I held my nose and voted for it last year, and I will hold my nose and do the same this year.

"There is no confusion about my being in love with the bill. I've made it clear that I don't like it. It is industry specific instead of general. It uses a blunt instrument rather than a scalpel. But somehow the message has to be sent.

"The Japanese are very hard to talk to about fair trade. In my district in Washington, wood is the main export. The Japanese like to buy our logs, but they won't buy our finished wood products. When they buy the logs, they are buying all the jobs connected with manufacturing something from them.

"I understand that the American wood industry is partly at fault for that. For decades, the attitude of Americans was that 'we use 2-by-4s so the world uses 2-by-4s.' The Japanese didn't want 2-by-4s, so it was shortsightedness on our part. But now that in recent years we've been wising up in that regard, the frustrations have only increased.

"Last year, working through the Japanese embassy, I tried to get them to sit down with a group of the wood product manufacturers in my district--there are dozens of them scattered around my part of Washington. We wanted to talk to the Japanese about what they wanted and what we could provide. But we couldn't even get them to come to a goddamn meeting. They were polite, but they were not interested. They are just very tough people to deal with. As long as domestic content seems to be the only game that can force them to deal, I'm going to play that game."

For more than a year, there has been heavy lobbying and rhetoric on both sides of the issue. The UAW made domestic content its No. 1 priority last year and used it as a litmus test for political contributions during the 1982 congressional campaigns, during which Energy and Commerce Committee members received more than $1.17 million from organized labor.

On the other side, a broad coalition of groups ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to the League of Women Voters has been holding weekly strategy sessions at the chamber's national offices here, plotting how to kill the measure. Most of the Democratic presidential aspirants endorsed it. President Reagan said he would veto it. U.S. agencies, ranging from the Federal Trade Commission to the State Department, came out in force against it.

But for most Energy and Commerce members, all of that has been secondary. The issue goes to the most basic level of decision making in Congress, local imperative. Take a quick look around the committee:

* Democrats Dingell of Michigan, Dennis Eckart of Ohio, Phil Sharp of Indiana, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Doug Walgren of Pennsylvania and Republican Don Ritter of Pennsylvania represent districts where car, steel and auto-parts plants are the life- blood of local economies. They support domestic content.

"Ideally, I would like to be a free trader, but you can't be a purist when your people are getting laid off," Eckart said. "My part of Ohio Cleveland's industrial suburbs makes more auto parts even than Michigan. We make fiberglass, plastics, rubber for hosing and belts, weather-stripping, chrome refinishing. This issue hits so close to home there's no need for anyone to talk to me about it. I wish Congress didn't have to enter this arena, but the people in my district don't see any other hope."

* Nissan is building a small-trucks plant in the district of Democrat Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. He voted against domestic content last year and will again.

* About 260,000 Japanese cars and trucks move through the port of Portland, Ore., each year, providing for an estimated 8,433 jobs directly and indirectly. Democrat Ron Wyden represents that district and opposes domestic content.

* The four Californians on the committee, Democrats Henry Waxman and Jim Bates and Republicans William Dannemeyer and Carlos Moorhead, represent districts that rely heavily on trade with Japan. All oppose domestic content.

* Democrat John Bryant of Texas, whose district is home to thousands of workers for Oilwell Supply and Lone Star Steel, makers of steel pipe and tube products, is angry that the Japanese entered what is known as the Oil Country Tubular Goods market at cut-rate prices, creating a major slump at the Texas plants. He will vote for domestic content partly in retribution.

* Democrat Bill Richardson of New Mexico, whose mineral-rich region is one of the major bases of the U.S. copper industry, is upset that Mexico, with the support of the Reagan administration, is opening a copper-smelting plant across the state and across the border from one in his congressional district. Richardson said that this is an example of the U.S. government's "namby-pamby" position in foreign competition and that, although he saw "real practical problems with domestic content," he will vote for it.

Caught in the middle of such provincial concerns was Democrat James Florio of New Jersey, chairman of the commerce, transportation and tourism subcommittee through which the domestic-content law first moved. At a private meeting of his subcommittee members and staff before the session, Florio said that he wanted his panel to look seriously at all aspects of foreign trade and that he had reservations about domestic content. It was, he said, in many ways a simplistic answer to a very complicated problem.

Last year, the same measure had been rushed out of Energy and Commerce after only one hearing, primarily because organized labor wanted fast action to prove to its workers that their votes had counted during the fall congressional elections. Florio had no intention of rushing things this year.

He held extensive hearings and, with each week, it became more obvious that he was at best a reluctant supporter. Finally, on the eve of full committee consideration of the bill last week, he produced a substitute measure that, among other things, called for more studies and gave federal agencies more flexibility in implementing domestic-content requirements.

But this week, as the committee votes on the bill, it is likely that most of Florio's amendments will lose.

"He is trying to put into the realm of the practical an issue which for the most part is not in that realm," one colleague said. "Most of us are convinced that this bill isn't going to become law, so every line in it that is changed along the way simply dilutes the message to Japan. I am one of those voting for a bill that, practically speaking, I don't think will work.

"When someone tries to make it closer to working, the only purpose that serves is to make those of us who are holding our noses smell the stench a little more."