For hundreds of miles along the southern rim of this island, on the flat margin between mountains and sea, the traveler moves through a remarkably uniform scene. At any point he is likely to find, packed neatly between himself and the horizon, several rice fields, a cluster of tidy small houses, and one or two factories. A high tension line is always in sight.

It is the most relentlessly industrial landscape in the world. In it, beauty is most often found on a small scale, in the careful array of plants on the curb in front of a shop, or up a side street into which the traveler has accidentally turned because he is, once again, slightly lost.

One local variation in that long coastal strip is in the roofs, sometimes a handsome blue tile. While tile is more striking to the eye, it is heavy and, in earthquakes, dangerous. In areas with histories of earthquakes, the tile roofs vanish and are replaced with tin.

Japan may be the only country in the world in which agriculture can compete economically with heavy industry for land. The Japanese have clear recollections of blockades and embargoes; they are determined to support the price of rice at whatever level necessary to ensure national self-sufficiency. Currently it's supported at four times the world price.

To an American, it is astonishing almost never to see a dilapidated house. It is doubly astonishing since residential construction here is typically stucco over wood, and fragile.

As you pass through cities, you sometimes see extraordinary structures of hanging nets. They are driving ranges, allowing a population of passionate golfers to keep in practice in a country where there isn't much room for long drives. Some of the larger driving ranges are double-deckers.

In a country that has become an industrial power in one generation, there is a particular solicitude for the rare historic building to have survived war, fire and earthquake. The government assembled teams of traditional craftsmen to spend seven years restoring the gigantic White Heron Castle at Himeji--a spectacular exception, by the way, to the rule that beauty here is on a small scale. It's also an illuminating example of the military architecture of the early 17th century, built in its present form by the first of the Tokugawa shoguns to keep the turbulent Western barons out of the central imperial domain.

The visitor to the castle is repeatedly passed by troops of schoolchildren. Up through high school age, they march in columns of twos, boys in navy blue suits with caps, girls in navy blue dresses.

The youngest children, sighting foreigners, immediately offer Beginning English, Lesson One: "Hello." "Goodbye." "My name is." Older children are more diffident, but sometimes succumb to the temptation to see whether the language in which they have been drilled for years in the classroom is actually intelligible to the visitor.

Japan is surely the only country where all the national papers routinely publish editions in a foreign language, English, and the telephone company provides an English-language phone book. Public signs are commonly bilingual. There seems to be a double meaning to this considerable effort. It is a gracious gesture to the foreigners. The Japanese generally consider it unreasonable to expect anyone else to command their formidable language. But by making it unnecessary for the foreigner to learn it, the Japanese also maintain their language as a veil protecting the national privacy of a country that remains ambivalent about the outside world.

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In 1853, when Commodore Perry arrived with his fleet in Tokyo Bay and demanded trading privileges, the chief imperial counselor in a moment of uncharacteristic indecision asked the feudal lords for their advice. It was divided. Some of the lords thought that if Japan granted even limited access, the Americans would keep pressing for more and more. Others argued that there was much that the Japanese might learn from their uninvited visitors. Now, 130 years later, it is clear that both were right.

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An uneasy impression is spreading here in Tokyo that the actual facts are irrelevant to the current trade disputes between the United States and Japan. A visitor repeatedly hears Japanese speculation that what the United States government really seems to want, beyond all the legalistic arguments over trading practices, is help in managing the political pain of poorly understood change and malfunction in the American economy.

Yotaro Kobayashi, president of the Fuji Xerox Co., reports "concern . . . a sort of nagging impression on the part of Japan that perhaps there is a foregone conclusion" to the industrial policy talks that opened here last month.

First, Kobayashi said, "our American friends" assure Japan that they only want to understand better why its industrial policy works so well. But then, he added, the same people often go on to say that, regardless of their findings, where American industry is losing position they will press Japan to change that policy.

Kobayashi acknowledged American scholars' references to Japanese arrogance, and to the Japanese tendency to reply to criticism by saying that foreigners merely don't understand Japan. "I think that's something we should listen to," he said.

But the Japanese are puzzled and dismayed by what seems to be real American anger at Japanese success in the high technologies. Yet the Americans have not been able to describe precisely what it is that the Japanese are doing unfairly. Japanese conclude with some confusion, Kobayashi said, that "there must be something we do not know."

Kobayashi is as knowledgeable and sympathetic an interlocutor as an itinerant reporter is likely to find here. A product of the Wharton School, he heads the wholly Japanese management of a 50-50 joint venture between a Japanese company, Fuji Photo Film, and Xerox.

Has Fuji Xerox run into discrimination here as a half-foreign company? For its first five or six years, Kobayashi replied, it had some difficulty persuading its Japanese customers that it was operating by Japanese standards. Japanese standards means, among other things, extremely attentive and responsive customer service.

The company's greatest crisis followed the enormous rise in oil prices in 1973-74. A great wave of cost-cutting swept over the Japanese business world as the country struggled to pay its oil bills. Fuji Xerox, using Xerox's basic designs, had been producing equipment of high quality but high cost. To survive, they had to get costs down. How? By rapidly redesigning their line and following the daring tactic, common in Japanese industry, of introducing new products at very high volumes to get economies of scale immediately.

These waves of high-volume production are central to American accusations about Japanese targeting in high-tech markets. But it is a method that Japanese companies developed to stay afloat in their own rapidly changing markets.

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Both American labor unions and the United States government have been pressing Japanese automobile manufacturers to produce cars in the United States. How do Japanese unions feel about that?

Ichiro Shioji heads the largest of Japan's auto workers' unions, with 230,000 members. He's been saying for years that the Japanese companies ought to have plants in the United States. Some of his members are against it, and when he invited Douglas Fraser, then head of the American United Auto Workers, to Japan three years ago, the issue attracted a lot of attention in the press. But in the Japanese labor movement, he said in an interview a couple of weeks ago, most people support him.

So Japanese auto workers don't see expatriate plants as a threat to them?

Japanese workers feel a lot of anxiety about overseas plants, Shioji replied. But they regard the American plants as a special case. His union recognizes that there are limits to Japan's ability to expand exports of automobiles. It has to think carefully about relations with other industrial powers. In any country, he said, the auto industry has a strong relationship to national security--not solely in the strictly military sense, but more broadly--and because of the large labor force involved, to social policy.

How does he explain that to his members?

In just those terms, he replied. It's the responsibility of leaders to explain what should be the goal of industry--what the Japanese should do so that Japan can survive. (That phrase, "so that Japan can survive," comes up repeatedly here.)

What about the joint venture between General Motors and Toyota to build cars at Fremont, Calif., and the anti-competitive aspects of collaboration between these two gigantic companies?

The joint venture is a good thing, Shioji declared. As a precedent for industrial cooperation between the United States and Japan, it should encourage more collaboration in the future and that would be good for employment. As for the anti-competitive implications, it's not a merger of the two companies. It's a venture limited to one factory. He hopes that people in the United States will see it from a different perspective from the traditional antitrust position.

He is aware, he added, that a new trend is visible within the American UAW. In the past, it followed a policy of confrontation with the companies. Now it is gradually shifting in some degree to cooperation--even in the GM and Ford plants. (The Fremont plant is to be under Japanese management, in a test of Japanese methods under American conditions.) Shioji said that he hopes to see Fremont turn into a demonstration of this movement toward labor-management cooperation.

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Americans have come to regard Japan as suddenly very strong, and all too successful a competitor. But here a vivid sense persists of Japanese vulnerability to American power and the swings in American policy. This pervasive sense of American strength makes it difficult for even the most sophisticated Japanese to take at face value the current American complaints about Japanese competition.

Jyushiro Komiyama, a member of the Diet and of the dominant Liberal Democratic party, has been in and out of trade negotiations since the textile talks of the late 1960s.

The Japanese don't fully understand why the world's No. 1 economic giant has fallen into its present circumstances, Komiyama observed. It seems incredible to them that all of the troubles of the U.S. economy could be Japan's fault.

When the price of oil went up 10 years ago, the government here led a strenuous effort to restructure Japanese industry. Because of that initiative, he said, Japan was able to survive. But Americans have let the impact of the oil prices fall onto their steel and auto industries.

The Japanese, as he put it, keep wanting to ask Americans a question: can't you do better?

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A random Sunday afternoon walk, near the center of Tokyo. Fathers out with small children on a tree-lined street, and the occasional smell of cooking.

A large display window, and behind it a rich assortment of video equipment--cameras, recorders and so forth. A showroom, evidently, and open. I went in. It turned out to be unexpectedly interesting.

To the left, audio gear and the steady pounding of rock turned up a bit high for my taste. Straight ahead, personal computers. A dozen terminals were turned on. Some 15 kids, in ones and twos, were working on them that Sunday afternoon.

They looked about 8 to 12 years old. A class? Perhaps. I can't tell you, since my Japanese is zero. But no teacher was in evidence--only a few salespeople here and there, paying little attention to the children.

Deportment was not perfect. One 8-year-old, bored, was banging irritably on a keyboard. But others were concentrating. They were not playing video games. They were working problems in math and logic. Most of it was in Japanese but some of the basic commands were in English. To run the machines the children needed a short English vocabulary beginning with the word, "Ready."

The sign on the wall, also in English, announced the place to be the "Techno-Culture Center." The machines were clearly there for sales demonstration. Prices were attached to most of them.

But they were also programmed for serious education, and it seemed to be taken for granted that they would be used seriously. Were the kids regulars? Again, I can't say.

Sharp and Fujitsu had machines on display. IBM was offering equipment that went considerably beyond my definition of a personal computer. But the biggest display, on which the children were occupied, was NEC's. Beyond it NEC had further set up what it called, again in English, as though to convey the thought that English was the entry language here, a "Personal Computer Play and Programming Room." There were eight booths in which half a dozen youngsters, of the same ages, were at work.

Did you ever see a computer showroom in the United States that allowed kids to come in and use the machines? Do you think that such a thing actually exists?

But private companies in Japan take a lot more responsibility for education than they do in the United States. And they have the advantage of operating in a disciplined, homogeneous society where stealing is rare and vandalism still rarer.

Several backgammon boards were set out nearby on low tables among some of the terminals. Why? A computer, blinking, urged me to press its space bar. I did. It rapidly drew a backgammon board on its screen, and challenged me to a game. I declined with regret, explaining that I had to catch a plane.