By raising the specter of Japanese control of tourist facilities inside Yosemite National Park, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. has focused attention on a longstanding concern of environmentalists and Interior officials: growing commercialization of the United States' natural shrines.

Lujan stopped short of suggesting that Yosemite visitors soon will be snacking at sushi bars as a consequence of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s purchase of MCA Inc., the American entertainment giant whose subsidiary operates hotels, restaurants and other businesses inside Yosemite.

But his remarks this week on the dangers of "foreign ownership" at Yosemite crystallized a debate over private enterprise and the parks. Under long-term contracts with the National Park Service, private concessions have evolved into highly profitable businesses that critics contend are destroying the character of the nation's natural treasures.

Environmental leaders praised him, Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.) introduced a bill requiring American ownership of park concessions and 150 telegrams and phone calls of support poured into Lujan's office, a spokesman said.

For park advocates and, some say, a substantial portion of the U.S. public, the idea that a Japanese company now controls the fate of tourist facilities in one of the nation's "crown jewels" is the ultimate irony.

"When I talk to tourists, they hate the idea of Japan owning tourist facilities in Yosemite," said Dean Malley, chair of the Sierra Club's Yosemite task force.

Matsushita representatives have said they agree that MCA's Yosemite Park and Curry Co. should remain in American hands and that it will donate the company's profits to the park until a suitable buyer can be found. Company spokesmen have accused Lujan of "Japan-bashing," suggesting that he wants to "intimidate and coerce" Matsushita into donating the business to the park.

Lujan has generally kept a low profile during his two years as interior secretary. But aides said the former New Mexico congressman has a special interest in park concessions, and they acknowledged that he has used the Japan issue to dramatize his concern. Among other things, Lujan has noted pointedly that he does not drive a Japanese-made car.

But whatever his motives, Lujan's alarm struck a nerve.

In an interview yesterday, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu suggested that Lujan was engaged in a game of chicken aimed at forcing Matsushita to soften its terms. "He raised some points that have validity," Sununu said. "When you are in a negotiating session, sometimes you state your points very strongly."

Since early in his tenure, Lujan has voiced concern about the role of private concessions in the national parks. The issue is rooted in the early history of the park service, which was starved for visitors and offered highly favorable, long-term contracts to private entrepreneurs willing to provide food and shelter.

Over the years, the number of visitors soared and so did profits. But under the contract terms, much of the additional money went to the businesses, not the parks. In addition, concessionaires built up large investments in hotels, restaurants and other facilities, making the owners difficult to dislodge.

Environmentalists have blamed concessionaires for encouraging commercial development that far exceeds their mandate to provide only those services deemed "necessary and appropriate." The environmental groups, along with the park service, have been seeking ways to buy out the equity in park concessions and renegotiate contracts to return higher revenues to the parks.

Curry Co., the nation's largest park concession, has long been singled out for special scrutiny. Under its 30-year contract, which expires in 1993, the company returns 75 cents to the government for every $100 in gross receipts. Services offered by the company include pizza and ice cream stands, raft rentals and wine-tasting festivals.

Interior officials and environmentalists saw Matsushita's $6.6 billion purchase of MCA as a perfect opportunity to correct the situation, pressing the company to donate its equity interest or, failing that, negotiate a cut-rate sale to the park service or non-profit group.

"There's a stamp that shows {Yosemite landmark} Half Dome and the American flag," said Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "This is not {just} a business deal. It would be like an American firm operating the Imperial Gardens or Buckingham Palace."

MCA officials say they cannot afford to part with an investment they value at more than $100 million. But Wilderness Society president George Frampton said that independent appraisers have set the business's value at closer to $40 million, an amount that jibes with park service estimates.

The park service is concerned that if MCA proceeds with its plan to sell the business to the highest bidder, the new concessionaire might be saddled with so much debt that it would be unable to divert a higher percentage of its profits to the park.

But MCA advisers said that the park service will be a party to any negotiations with potential buyers, and that the best way to resolve the debate is for Lujan to allow the bidding to begin. "There's an easy way to settle it," said one. "Let him give us approval, offer it up for sale and see what it's worth."

Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report.