Boston — Is the ''Made in Japan'' label losing its appeal?
Once reserved for inexpensive goods, it became synonymous with high-quality craftsmanship.
Now, in some quarters, it provokes resentment. Recent public opinion polls show sharply increasing numbers of Americans holding unfavorable attitudes toward Japan.
The issue: a well-publicized capture of American markets by Japanese manufacturers of automobiles, television and radio sets, motorcycles, and other products. The result: growing pressure for protective tarriffs.
Now, however, voices of moderation have arisen on both sides of the Pacific. Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, in a major speech on US-Japanese trade relations, says that the solution lies not in locking out Japanese imports but in improving American competitiveness.
And former Japanese Foreign Minister Saburo Okita, in a speech before the Japan Society of Boston, notes that ''cool reasoning has never been more necessary than at present, when debate has grown so heated.''
Both agree that there is a serious problem. The trade figures favor Japan, which in 1981 exported $15.8 billion more in goods to the United States than it bought from US firms.
But both agree that proposed US legislation calling for ''reciprocity'' - the closing of US markets to certain Japanese goods in retaliation for the closing of Japanese markets to some US goods - is misguided and counterproductive.
''Protectionism is no answer,'' said Senator Tsongas in remarks prepared for delivery May 21 to the International Business Center of New England. ''It is an opiate that would lull us into complacency, while neglecting the fundamentals of the economy.''
Tsongas's constituents include a number of high technology firms that, while suffering somewhat from Japanese competition, nevertheless depend on unimpeded international trade and see great dangers in unbridled protectionism.
His speech, which aides say has been months in preparation, was delivered by a video-tape flown up from Washington, where Tsongas was tied up in Senate debate on the budget.
Ironically, it was recorded on Sony television equipment - and delivered to the airport in a Toyota.
Noting that Japanese productivity has expanded at four times the US rate since 1950, Senator Tsongas said that the answer lay in six measures to improve American competitiveness:
* A ''latter-day Magna Charta'' to increase cooperation between labor and management.
* Expanded investment in research and development. Figures from 1978 (the most recent available) show that Japan spent 1.9 percent of its gross national product in this area, while the US spent only 1.54 percent. His office is now drafting legislation to promote joint research ventures among various companies, which are currently hampered by anti-trust laws.
* Increased training of engineers and more funds for graduate student loans.
* A willingness to settle disputes over regulation through negotiation rather than litigation. A former lawyer, he said that ''we're simply spending too much of our resources on lawyers.''
* Increased savings, including a higher ceiling on tax-exempt contributions to IRA and Keough retirement accounts.
* Legislation to permit the formation of American export trading companies, along with expanded funding for the Export-Import Bank.
Without such measures, he said, the US could become ''a glorified banana republic diminishing its raw materials while importing man-made goods.''
The speech put some distance between Tsongas and others in the Senate who propose reciprocity legislation. Hearings on the subject have recently concluded in the International Trade Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee, with a bill by subcommittee chairman John C. Danforth (R) of Missouri emerging as the most prominent among many possibilities.
Philip H. Trezise, a former assistant secretary of state for economic affairs in the Nixon administration and an opponent of reciprocity, said that there may be enough votes at present in Congress to pass such legislation - although he says he believes the White House will resist it to the point of a veto.
Aides to Senator Danforth say he rejects the notion that such legislation necessarily leads to wholesale protectionism. He sees the threat of reciprocity as a means for giving leverage to US marketing efforts overseas.
Mr. Okita, while defending Japan's recent decision to reduce 67 specific nontariff barriers - on everything from metal baseball bats to radioactive isotopes - told his audience May 20 that ''I consider that opening its market is in Japan's own interest.''
Noting that Japan's March 1982 export figure was 8.2 percent below the figure last March, he later said ''We now realize that Japan cannot remain an island of prosperity in the midst of a depressed economy.''