THE oilman, fixing a minor glitch in our furnace, was bitter. ``When's Reagan going to look out for us?'' he complained. ``When's he going to do something about those Japanese?'' His brother-in-law had just been laid off from the automobile plant he worked at, a casualty, as my oilman saw it, of competition from Japanese carmakers.
Like many Americans, my oilman might have bought his television set, his clock radio, his camera, his calculator, from the Japanese. But like many other Americans, the good deal he got on them hasn't dissuaded him from believing that the Japanese are exploiting the American market, protecting their own market, and that something has to be done about this.
It is a view you run into more and more. It is a view, I suspect, being fueled in part by all the press and television coverage being given the anniversary of the ending of the war with Japan. Because one of the themes threaded through this coverage is that although the Japanese may have lost the war militarily, Japan's clever trade barons are conducting a winning trade offensive.
It is a mood of discontent which Congress has picked up on. The Democrats think trade may be a good issue with which to berate the Republicans next year. They will criticize President Reagan for having lost jobs to foreign workers, and for the big trade deficit the United States is running, and for his inability to get Japan to open up its country to American exports.
It is the mood that has generated a slew of legislation against Japan in Congress. And if congressmen hear more of this anti-Japanese talk from their constituents during their August vacation, they will be going back to Washington intent on ramming through some of these protectionist measures aimed at Japan.
In fact, there is a lot of myth about our trade relationship with Japan.
The fact is that Japan buys some $25 billion a year from the United States, as much as the United States exports to France, West Germany, and Britain combined.
Japan is the United States' best agricultural market, buying between $6 billion and $7 billion worth of goods a year.
In 1971, American exports to Japan were only $4 billion. Today they are six times that amount.
So that is progress. But it is not progress enough. The United States has been negotiating with the Japanese for greater access to the Japanese market. Movement has been grindingly slow. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone says the right things, appeals on television to the Japanese to buy more American goods, and the Japanese announce packages of reforms, the most recent of them on July 30.
But the Japanese bureaucracy has proved masterly at hindering action on such changes, and in the meantime the American trade deficit with Japan continues to grow.
Unless there is real change, the mood of retaliation will gather strength and be translated into inflexible legislation regulating our trade with Japan.
There are other myths, too, about the relationship. One is a Japanese myth that American goods are shoddy, or not adapted to Japanese cultural tastes. But there is nothing inferior or particularly ``American'' about Iowa corn-fed beef, or Florida orange juice, or Northwest plywood. It is not the inferiority of the goods, but Japanese denial of access to the market, that is preventing large scale Japanese purchase of such items.
It may not be realistic to assume that the United States must sell to Japan exactly the same value of goods as it buys from Japan. But unless the United States gets the full and speedy access to Japanese markets that top Japanese officials have promised, the American mood may nudge Congress to drastic reprisals.
John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.