DEC. 7 is the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans and Japanese alike are already looking to this date not only as they remember the past but perhaps even more as they take stock of the present. Although the two countries are now allies and trading partners, their relations are not always smooth. Some worry that this year's commemoration, certain to receive much attention, may rekindle in the US feelings of mistrust, if not outright hostility, toward Japan.Given present-day economic tensions, these concerns might seem well-founded. In fact, though, the idea that remembering Pearl Harbor might damage United States-Japanese ties is largely unsupported. Rank-and-file Americans display a general lack of ill will toward the Pacific nation whose attack a half century ago plunged us into the costliest foreign war in our history. It is indeed true that at the time of Pearl Harbor and throughout World War II, American distrust and hostility toward Japan surpassed that toward any other of our wartime enemies, including Germany. The internment of Japanese Americans was a direct result of this. Polling done by the Gallup Organization near the end of the war also makes clear that many Americans viewed the Japanese people with a special antipathy. For example, 63 percent of those surveyed in May 1945 said they thought the Japanese "approved entirely" of killing and starving prisoners; only 31 percent made this charge of the Germans. Asked "Which people do you think are more cruel at heart - the Japanese or the Germans," four out of five said the former. Yet whatever the combination of factors - from the nature of the Japanese attack on US forces in Hawaii, to racial feelings in which ordinary Germans were more "us" and Japanese "them that produced the special wartime animus, the latter feelings dissipated rapidly after the war ended. In a survey taken in August 1951, just six years after Japan's surrender, 51 percent described their feelings toward the Japanese as friendly, 18 percent as neutral, and only 25 percent as unfriendly. American leaders' decisions to aid heavily in the rebuilding of both Japan and Germany involved an intelligent assessment of long-term US interests, but they could not have been sustained were it not for this rapid disappearance of public hostility. In recent years, large majorities of Americans have described their feelings toward Japan as friendly. A CBS News/New York Times poll of June 1990 put the proportion at 75 percent. A number of recent surveys have shown the overall mix of favorable, neutral, and unfavorable judgments on Japan to be about the same as that on Israel. Surveys by the Roper Organization over the last decade have consistently shown slightly higher proportions of Americans calling Japan a close ally or friend than so describing West Germany. Studies done each year by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of the University of Chicago have found between 60 and 70 percent of the US public giving Japan a n overall favorable rating. In the NORC survey taken last winter, when Japan was being criticized for not doing its share in the conflict with Iraq, 64 percent assessed Japan favorably, just 30 percent negatively - almost exactly the same as 15 years earlier. None of this is to say that Pearl Harbor has been forgotten. In a survey done by Louis Harris and Associates in October 1986, 47 percent said the Japanese attack was something they still felt strongly about. On the other hand, 51 percent said the attack was "almost a forgotten episode." Not surprisingly, the young were much more likely to consign Pearl Harbor to the past; 65 percent of those 18 to 24 years said in the Harris survey that it was a forgotten episode. But 32 percent of those 50 years and old er said this too - even though most of them had personal memories of the attack. In parallel surveys taken in February 1989 by CBS News and the New York Times, and by Tokyo Broadcasting System, 84 percent of Americans and 83 percent of Japanese said that the enmity of World War II is "all in the past." As the Japanese have become more formidable competitors, and the sales of their products in the US - especially high-visibility items like cars - have grown, some politicians have turned to various forms of "Japan bashing." Polls suggest that all the talk about the Japanese threat to American well-being has had some impact on the public, contributing to a climate of some unease. But on the whole, Japan bashing hasn't found fertile soil. In the late 1940s, Americans were quick to give up their wartime hos tilities. In the 1980s and 1990s, they have generally resisted urgings to view Japan as an economic threat.