Tokyo — American pressure on Japan to assume a larger regional defense role is causing the Japanese problems in their relations with other Asian nations.
Tokyo's reponse is to continue working to ''dispel misunderstandings,'' and easing any anti-Japanese feeling through more economic cooperation and cultural exchanges with Southeast Asia.
But Foreign Ministry officials concede that concern over a Japanese military build-up is likely to continue, no matter what Japan does, until memories of the World War IIfinally fade. The textbook controversy has been an object lesson to Tokyo that there is still a long way to go in this regard, said one source.
Both Philippine President Marcos and Indonesian President Suharto warned the Reagan administration in their visits to Washington last month that their countries and others in Southeast Asia opposed a Japanese military build-up that might pose a threat to their security. They particularly objected to the American proposal that the Japanese take some of the burden of the United States Seventh Fleet by assuming responsibility for defense of sea lanes up to 1,000 miles off its coast.
And President Suharto recently stopped off in Tokyo on his way home from the US to insist to Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki that, under American pressure, Japan was trying to increase its defense forces to levels greater than necessary for its own security.
Government officials in Tokyo insist such concerns are unwarranted. ''We have made our position clear to President Marcos and other leaders (in the region) through diplomatic channels and I think it has been understood by them,'' said Kazutoshi Hasegawa, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Bureau.
''How to improve our self-defense capacity is a matter for Japan to consider, but I do not think it is an issue posing a threat to the security of Southeast Asia,'' Mr. Hasegawa continued.
The Foreign Ministry maintains the longstanding government position that Japan will never become a military power again because the Japanese people are absolutely opposed to a revival of militarism, and there are strict limitations imposed by the current war-renouncing Constitution.
Japan's security could only be ensured through active diplomacy, the US-Japan security treaty, and maintenance of sophisticated but limited self-defense capability, according to Hasegawa. He also emphasized that the expanded sea lane defense policy under consideration was limited, and that Japan had no intention of expanding to cover wider Southeast Asian waters beyond the Philippines.
Presidents Marcos and Suharto might find some reassurance, too, from growing opposition within Japan to a wider defense role as well as the economic restraints being imposed by the government's current financial difficulties.
In preliminary negotiations for the fiscal 1983 budget (starting next April 1 ), the Defense Agency earlier won a 7.3 percent increase from this year's allocations primarily to boost sea lane defense capabilities (mainly in the form of more destroyers and antisubmarine patrol aircraft). But due to an unexpectedly large shortfall in government revenue, the Finance Ministry is now saying this will have to be cut.
In order to win public understanding on the need to reduce welfare spending, for example, the increase in the defense budget can be no more than 3 percent, a leading official was quoted as saying the other day.
Opposition to the expanded sea lane defense concept is predictable from the political left. But the impassioned public debate has recently been given extra weight by criticism from within ''the establishment.''
In a recent magazine article entitled ''Don't Repeat the Mistake of the Japanese Empire,'' Osamu Kaihara, former secretary-general of the National Defense Council, argued that the current plan envisaged by Japan and the US is no different from the one formulated by the Japanese imperial forces in World War II. After initial success at Pearl Harbor, the war plan was a total disaster , he pointed out.
And in a newly published book ''Military Expansion: Japan's Ruin,'' Hisao Maeda, a recently retired faculty member of the National Defense College, argued the 1,000-mile defense concept is not only unnecessary but dangerous. One major aspect is that, with the US Seventh Fleet deployed to the Indian Ocean - say in time of a Middle East crisis - the Japanese would have responsibility for ''bottling up'' the Soviet Far East Fleet in the northern Pacific.
Even if the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force were stronger, Maeda argued, Soviet missiles could quickly reduce the whole of Japan to a pile of rubble.