In dealing with the touchy question of foreign companies' access to Japanese markets, the Japanese argue that these companies have made little effort to design and market quality products that meet Japanese consumers' demands.

The classic case, of course, is that American car manufacturers never produced a right-hand drive car to conform to the Japanese road system. When the Japanese penetrated the American market, they did it with left-hand drives that Americans are used to -- along with styling touches that American consumers had demanded.

There is also a question of quality: in the current negotiations on what standards the Japanese will accept for supplying equipment to their telephone and telecommunications networks, a key issue is whether Americans will have to meet Japanese standards. American negotiators think the standards are being set rigidly to exclude some American- made products.

Thus, according to Susan Chira of The New York Times, the American team wants the Japanese to adopt a single "harm to the network" standard. It would exclude only products that would actually damage the Japanese telecommunications system.

Justin Bloom, a former career diplomat who has specialized in scientific affairs, commented that the "harm to the network" standard provides only the bare minimum necessary to keep the system operating and does nothing to improve quality. Should Americans try to impose lower-quality equipment on a reluctant buyer?

From his own experience, Bloom -- now a consultant here -- says: "American manufactuers have never been good at adapting their equipment to others' standards. They insist, 'Our equipment is best, so use our products or modify your standards.'

He adds that the Japanese bristle at being asked to do things that the Americans would never ask of their European or Canadian partners -- such as placing a representative of American companies on a government advisory committee.

But Brookings economist Lawrence Krause notes that "No other country uses advisory committees the way they do, to dole out business. . . . The Japanese system uses cartels; they like to pick a set of winners and stick with them."

There has been rigidity on both sides. Until recently, Americans weren't hungry enough for the business: Most American executives haven't felt it necessary to learn how to speak Japanese, nor have their companies designed products for the Japanese market. (A few, such as IBM and Texas Instruments, have proven it can be done.)

But by and large, the Japanese have blocked access to their markets; on a global basis they will have to arrive at a better balance between imports and exports. Even will Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's call to buy imports, it is clear that a huge Japanese trade surplus will continue for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, Japanese capital is flowing out into the world. For example, Japan is helping to finance a huge share of the U.S. budget deficit.

In their frustration over huge trade deficits and loss of jobs in their districts, Congress cannot ignore the fact that bad macroeconomic policy here is a major cause of the problem. The United States, as most of its friendly allies counsel it, must do something about the budget deficit, high real interest rates and the high level of the dollar.

Japanese political leaders need to hasten the process by which Japan will be more accepting of Western products, assuming they meet quality standards. The best way to do it would be through multilateral negotiations with all the trading partners who seek access to Japanese markets.

But perhaps the overarching consideration is the maintenance of the political and strategic alliance between two powerful nations. In a tense world, we need Japan on our side as much as they need us.

Robert Christopher, former foreign editor of Newsweek, said in his book, "The Japanese Mind: The Goliath Explained," that the Japanese are a volatile and highly adaptable people. Twice, in little more than a century, they have totally transformed their society -- first, in copying European imperialism, and then in their post-war adoption of democratic capitalism.

Christopher's book was written in 1983. But the problem is the same today, only worse. His message is that another radical transformation of the Japanese is not a total impossibility -- say, a closer tie with Russia or China. The conventional wisdom, to be sure, is that the Japanese will never give up the security of the American nuclear umbrella.

But that's forecasting how Japan may act, based on our Western sense of logic. "Americans," Christopher says sardonically, "have no idea how Japanese think and feel. Inevitably, the most flagrant American blunders in dealing with the Japanese are committed by people who not only lack knowledge of Japan, but see no need to acquire any."