WHEN the Japanese discuss their current education problems, the legacy of the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur invariably receives part of the blame. Officials here trace many of their present difficulties to the imposition of foreign values held by those Americans who administered the postwar Allied occupation.
As a result, restructuring of education methods and, more specifically, shifting the philosophical underpinnings from American to Japanese social values are priority domestic tasks for Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.
An advisory group appointed by the prime minister identified four major educational problems:
* The baneful effects on lower education of the present highly competitive college entrance examination system.
* The ills of uniformity in education that stifles diversification.
* The influence of general social trends that make light of responsibility and obligations while emphasizing freedom and rights.
* Lack of recognition of the importance of discipline and education of youngsters in the home.
The concerns come against a background of record postwar levels of juvenile delinquency, especially violence by junior high school students in the classroom and at home. (Police have had to be called repeatedly to many inner-city schools to try to restore order.)
Japan has also seen an increase in the number of nervous breakdowns among teachers unable to cope and extremely high suicide levels among students, mainly concentrated among those at the junior high level but extending to elementary school as well. School absenteeism has shot up dramatically (by Japanese standards); the Education Ministry reports an average of 3.6 percent of junior high students refusing to attend classes.
Other authorities believe this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The prime minister argues that education in any society represents an effort to transmit a nation's culture to succeeding generations, but he notes that the postwar education reform sought to graft an American cultural model on Japanese society in order to build a new democratic society that would make a complete break with a militaristic, emperor-worshiping past.
''(This) helped the war-devastated nation rebuild itself and achieve today's prosperity,'' the advisory group concedes, but at the same time ''it has contributed to the (social) ills of today.''
The seven advisers, however, did not come up with any firm proposal on an issue close to Mr. Nakasone's heart - revamping the American-introduced school structure in which elementary schools include kindergarten through Grade 6; junior high, Grades 7 through 9; senior high, Grades 10 through 12; and college, four more years. This has long been blamed for the the severe struggle at every stage to advance to a good school, eventually leading up the ladder to a prestigious university that offers its graduates the prospect of top jobs in the public or private sector.
Instead, the group found it ''not necessarily appropriate'' at this time to enforce a uniform revision in this structure, although it urged more flexible application to allow for diversification of educational courses.
A nationwide opinion poll in March found 60 percent of the public dissatisfied with the current state of Japanese education. It also found widespread support for the prime minister's reform efforts. Only 4.8 percent said they were satisfied with the present system.
The factors cited most often as reasons for the disastisfaction were school violence, lack of moral education, and the need for better teachers and entrance examinations.
In his book ''A New Theory on Conservatism,'' Mr. Nakasone criticizes the approach to educational reform of the Central Education Council, an Education Ministry advisory body: ''(It) accepts a foreign educational system and principles of education prescribed to our country by the Allied occupation forces.'' This is seen as one reason Mr. Nakasone wants to create an entirely new organization.
He has not yet disclosed any comprehensive vision of a desirable education system for Japan. But his public utterances lay heavier emphasis on the philosophical and spiritual aspects.
Present-day education, he laments, miserably lacks spiritual emphasis. ''The Japanese are not unfamiliar with the Buddhist concept of mercy, the Confucian values of courtesy and propriety, the Shinto idea of a pure heart, and the Christian concept of love,'' he has said. ''We must review our country's spiritual heritage and build a new educational system on it.''
In a recent session of the Diet (parliament), he declared: ''Patriotism and the traditional Japanese respect for one's parents should be taught at school.''
Japan has a unique civilization in no way inferior to any other, and the Japanese should uphold this uniqueness, or the nation will lose its raison d'etre, he declared in a 1980 speech.
On the more practical aspects of reform, he feels that school textbooks in use today are too difficult for most youngsters to comprehend (teachers and parents agree), and that classroom teaching should be limited to the basics of education.
''Children should learn consideration for others in primary school, the spirit of service in junior high, and personality development in high school,'' he has said.
The left-wing teachers' union and other elements on the political left, however, fear the Nakasone reforms may amount to a renunciation of the postwar principles of democracy-based education and a revival of the prewar nationalistic kind.
Education Minister Yoshiro Mori tends to emphasize a more pragmatic approach to reform, saying, for example, that elimination of the undesirable practice of youngsters attending cram schools so as to pass entrance examinations is one area ripe for reform.
While there is general acceptance of the reforms being proposed, a leading newspaper has pointed out that, for them to be successful, there has to be a ''reform of social attitudes toward education - particularly the excessive weight given to diplomas from name universities. As long as people keep adhering to the current yardstick of evaluating people according to their university affiliation, little fruitful reform is likely to be attained.''