A report Sunday misidentified the attorney for a coalition of environmentalists who have challenged a U.S.-Japanese whaling agreement. He is William D. Rogers, former undersecretary of state for economic affairs.

Commercial whaling has at least temporarily replaced automobiles and computer chips as the new crisis flashpoint in U.S.-Japanese relations.

Protecting the whale has become a test of the Reagan administration's resolve to get tough with its most important Asian trading partner.

The situation is somewhat muddled. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige announced that an agreement had been reached to end Japan's commercial whaling and defuse the crisis. But the Japanese insisted they had agreed to no such thing. By week's end, Baldrige said he was sticking to his announcement.

Involved are serious environmental concerns, played off against deep Japanese national pride and high-stakes economics. The whaling industry is a 13 billion-yen (about $53 million) per-year business, according to the Japanese Embassy here.

The dispute also highlights the recurrent battle between Congress and the president over who should control foreign policy.

The Packwood-Magnuson amendment, sponsored by Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and then-Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), was tacked onto the Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1979. It requires the secretary of commerce to cut by 50 percent the fishing rights in U.S. coastal waters of any nation violating international whaling laws.

"Congress since Vietnam has asserted its authority in foreign policy, but there are not many examples of legislation on foreign policy which are as tight as this one." said William P. Rogers, a former Nixon administration secretary of state who is now the lawyer for environmentalists as they attempt to force the Reagan administration to punish Japan.

"This is an assertion of congressional authority in foreign relations which is unusually clear and precise," Rogers said.

The whaling issue surfaced in mid-1982 when the International Whaling Commission, meeting at the British seaside resort of Brighton, voted 25 to 7 for a worldwide moratorium on all commercial whale hunting, to begin in 1986. A ban on hunting sperm whales, to begin this season, also was voted as a first step toward the worldwide ban. The IWC representatives bowed to considerable pressure from conservationists, who made the world's dwindling whale population a No. 1 environmental priority. But the IWC vote came without the support of the commission's own scientific committee, and over the opposition of key whaling nations such as Japan and the Soviet Union. Their cooperation would be needed to make any moratorium effective.

Four months later, Japanese officials filed their formal objection to the ban. Under the rules of the IWC, created by a 1946 convention to regulate international whaling, any country can effectively exempt itself from a commission ruling simply by filing a formal legal objection.

The issue came to a head two weeks ago when Japanese whalers began the new sperm hunting season -- exempt from the IWC ban because of Japan's legal objection, but still subject to the mandatory U.S. sanctions under the Packwood-Magnuson amendment.

The administration hoped to avoid hitting Japan suddenly with tough sanctions. But a consortium of environmental and animal welfare groups, represented by Rogers, filed suit in U.S. District Court here seeking to force Baldrige to apply the sanctions.

So rushed were the talks over the final weekend that the United States announced the settlement before the Japanese negotiators had a chance to take it back to Tokyo.

On Tuesday, the Commerce Department announced an "agreement to end Japanese whaling." Baldrige said the Japanese would withdraw their formal objections to the IWC sperm whaling ban by mid-December and to the overall whaling ban by April of next year. In exchange, Baldrige said, the Japanese could continue to hunt sperm whales for two more years and the United States would not impose sanctions. But the ink was barely dry on the Commerce Department press release when the Japanese denied there was any agreement. While accepting the pact to end sperm whaling, a Japanese diplomat here said the overall whaling ban was not discussed, and that Japanese delegates had no authority to negotiate a general whaling ban.

Publicly, the administration insisted there is an agreement. "What is going on is that there has been an exchange of letters, so in that sense there is an agreement," said Robert McManus, general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which handled most of the talks. "Secretary Baldrige has made clear that there won't be any further negotiations."

McManus said the agreement "is binding, in the sense that if they don't do it, they're subject to certification" and sanctions.

But administration officials privately dismissed the Japanese complaints as aimed at audiences in Tokyo. "I think the Japanese are very nervous about protecting their flank for domestic public opinion," said one official. "But they don't have an awful lot of bargaining power."

The whaling dispute, with the threat of sanctions, comes at a particularly tense time in U.S.-Japanese relations. High-level Japanese diplomats here have talked openly about the possibility of heightened trade friction with the United States.

These Japanese officials said they fear that a newly reelected Reagan administration, facing a trade deficit this year of $130 billion -- $31 billion of it with Japan alone -- may be forced into new protectionist measures on a range of goods from steel to automobiles to telecommunications equipment.

Craig Van Note, executive president of the Monitor conservationist group, accused the Reagan administration of engaging in deliberate deceit by announcing an agreement prematurely.

"What they are trying to do is delay the crunch," he said. "They are putting off a greater conflict until next year. Maybe they hope to get the Packwood-Magnuson agreement gutted on the Hill."