TOKYO, NOV. 8 -- A weary group of 74 Japanese hostages just released from Iraq came home this morning to a restrained reception of polite bows and quiet applause, and then related tales of tolerable but tedious conditions during their months of captivity in the desert.

"Our problem wasn't food or clothing or shelter," said Atsuchiro Saisho, a Japan Air Lines employee who was one of the "human shield" hostages the Iraqis held at potential military targets. "It was wondering what will happen tomorrow, facing another day with nothing to do but wait."

Saisho said he was held at six different places, and met American, British, and Italian hostages. He said they were healthy but tired and frightened.

The ex-hostages' homecoming at Tokyo's Haneda Airport presented a sharp contrast to the boisterous, flag-waving reunions familiar to Americans in such situations. The returning Japanese received a welcome that was low-key, impersonal, and intensely corporate.

They were ushered into the airport's arrival lobby in groups according to their companies. An announcer recited the names of the corporations, but not the people: "Now the four gentlemen from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. . . . Now the eight gentlemen from Toyo Engineering."

The greeting given to Aritomo Ando, 55, an executive of Tomen Trading Co., was typical. Returning to his native land after three months' captivity in a distant war zone, Ando was met at the door by two officers of his firm, who bowed and thanked him for his effort.

Only then did one of the corporate greeters turn and beckon Ando's wife, who came forward shyly and gently patted her husband on the shoulder. The only shouts that greeted Ando were from the photographers jostling one another to get a better shot.

Ando and the others received scattered applause from the throng of family members and corporate officials in the waiting room. They were quickly shepherded past the reporters to company vans and buses that carried them away to company welcome-home luncheons.

Since the Japanese government played almost no role in the airport welcome, returning hostages who had no corporate connection were basically left to fend for themselves.

College student Kuzuhiro Shimizu, who had been doing graduate work in Iraq when the crisis started, walked through the airport door unannounced, pushing an airport luggage cart. With two friends who came to meet him, he carried his bags out to the street, fought his way through news media, and walked off to ride mass transit home.

In contrast to the American way of handling such things, the hostage problem has been chiefly a corporate concern here from the onset of the current crisis. Reflecting the almost familial sense of loyalty that runs between employer and employee in Japan, the hostages' companies took it on themselves to keep in touch with their captive employees and to care for their families at home.

Since the Japanese government had no employees in Iraq other than the diplomatic corps, it has not been an active force on the hostage issue.

Today's return of 73 men and one woman leaves 231 Japanese hostages in Iraq. The fact that so many are still in captivity was one reason today's homecoming was such a quiet affair. Another factor was that these were mainly older hostages, who grew up in an era when public displays of affection were considered unbecoming here.

One man on the chartered flight from Baghdad who could not control his delight was Yasuhiro Nakasone, the former prime minister who is trying to rebuild his image following a financial scandal. Nakasone went to Iraq on a lone-wolf mission and scored a political coup by bringing the 74 countrymen home.

Nakasone told reporters here that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had been impressed by his "sincerity." He said Saddam demonstrated "warmth" by removing the pistol from his holster before the two men sat down to talk.

The only time Nakasone's smile of satisfaction faded was when he was asked about White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater's charge that he had been "used" by Saddam for political purposes. "Not at all," Nakasone snapped.

The returned hostages related stories of long days that were structured to the minute by their Iraqi captors. There were three meals and two exercise sessions a day, always at the same time, according to Saisho, the JAL employee. The highlight of each day was the short-wave radio broadcast of the news, he said.

Yutaka Mihara, a Nippon Steel executive, estimated that the hostages at the refinery where he was held were receiving about 1,800 calories a day. His captors told him, he said, that this was more than the average Iraqi gets to eat these days.