Tokyo — An image-polishing public relations campaign could be Japan's last resort effort to ease trade-based problems with the United States.
Many observers detect a slight hint of desperation in new moves by the Tokyo government to persuade Americans that Japanese aren't as bad as they are often painted.
Specifically, it wants to eliminate the widespread impression that:
* Japanese companies are only interested in making profits through expanded exports at the expense of lost American jobs.
* There is a deliberate or conscious effort to stop the flow of American goods into this country.
* Undue barriers have been created by the government to discourage US businessmen wishing to set up shop here.
The government of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki is worried that no one in Washington seems to believe Japan is doing its best to solve the widespread trade problems.
Particularly alarming is the Reagan administration's apparent sympathy for congressional moves to enact ''reciprocity'' legislation, demanding that Japan open up its market on a straight one-for-one basis if it wants to continue trading freely in the US.
Japanese officials are adamant this will be a heavy blow to the entire principle of free trade, weakening rather than strengthening the American economy, and possibly encouraging the already strong European protectionist sentiment against Japanese products.
The Suzuki government, however, feels it has done all it can to meet American trade demands. The only thing left is to persuade the US of this fact.
Hiroshi Hashimoto, director general of the Foreign Ministry's Public Information Bureau, left for Washington Feb. 12 to hold a public relations course for all Japanese consuls and honorary consuls around the nation. He will also seek to meet key congressional figures leading the current anti-Japanese tide.
Foreign Ministry sources say Washington Ambassador Yoshio Ogawara now meets an average of three or four members of Congress a day to try to convince them of Japan's endeavors to narrow the trade gap ($13.5 billion or $18 billion in Japan's favor last year, depending on whether you use Tokyo's or Washington's method of calculation).
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is launching a parallel effort. The chairman of its special committee on international economic policy, Masumi Esaki , will lead a delegation to Washington Feb. 22-24 in a redoubled effort to alleviate American dissatisfaction.
Partly the aim is to take the heat out of meetings scheduled late next month between President Reagan and his top aides and visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshio Sakurauchi.
But Foreign Ministry sources stress there are deep structural problems involved in the trade problem that no amount of public relations can eliminate overnight.
Some analysts have said much of the US criticism is based on misunderstanding or outdated information. For example, US officials and businessmen have made much of so-called non-tariff barriers like complicated import and inspection licensing procedures.
After long study, most of these will shortly be dismantled, not because they will have much impact on the trade gap but because it will look good overseas. But for how long?
There are also frequent complaints that Japan's banking, securities, and insurance markets are not sufficiently liberalized. Chief US trade negotiator William Brock told Congress last week the administration is considering legal steps to give the president power to retaliate against countries that deny American companies access to these fields.
But the Finance Ministry, in a blunt rebuttal, said all these areas were fully liberalized with foreign companies accorded equal if not better treatment that Japanese firms. Claims to the contrary were based on inadequate or old information, it said.
An increasing number of business leaders and economic commentators are beginning to voice irritation at the US demands. They feel Americans want to have their hands held, and that all they have to do is shout loud enough and Japan will fall over itself to buy American products.
They insist it's not that Japan's current competitive edge in trade is due to anything particularly brilliant or innovative. Rather, it is due to the Western industrial economies doing so badly, for which Japan is being unfairly made the whipping boy.