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If only American business had listened to W. Edwards Deming sooner. Then "made in Japan" might still be a pejorative label, instead of the threat it is today.

Mr. Deming, statistician turned Allied adviser during the war, promoted the theory that manufacturers should demand perfection through statistical quality control, that quality was achieved through the dedication of the entire company, and manufacturers should give customers what they want.

For more than 30 years Mr. Deming was ignored in his own country. But as early as 1951 the Japanese implemented his methods, which became the standard for automobile production in Japan.

The Japanese "simply didn't have the capital investment to make after the war," said Terrence Kosky, senior managing associate with Coopers & Lybrand, Detroit. "Resources were scarce, and so they produced in small quantity. Parts had to be produced with the highest quality standards, otherwise they ran out of resources."

During World War II-long before U.S. highways were crowded with Japanese subcompacts and American family rooms were furnished with Japanese VCRs, TVs and CD players-the only Japanese brand name that got international attention was the Zero. This fighter out-flew anything the U.S. could put in the skies during most of the first year of the Pacific conflict.

In the 1930s, Toyota and Nissan were brand names little know outside Japan. The big names in passenger cars in Japan in those days were Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., which produced vehicles there. The fledgling Japanese companies used a lot of parts "made in America" without any trade talks or disputes. It wasn't until 1955 that Toyota Motor Corp. produced Japan's first wholly domestic model in the long-lasting Crown series, first exported to the U.S. in 1957.

Although Japan had its technological achievements in military hardware when it entered the war, it was woefully behind the U.S. in radar. The mighty B-29 bombers devastated Japanese cities. And the U.S. unleashed the fury of the Atomic Age with its bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The superiority of U.S. technology was not lost on the war's losers. When the Japanese made their comeback in the 1950s, they were determined to escape the reputation of turning out junk. And they did.

Based on Western Electric technology, the first Sony transistor radio was produced in 1955 and the company adopted the product's name to become Sony Corp. in 1957. Toyota, Nissan Motor Co. and Sony eventually gained international acceptance for their quality, along with Seiko Co. watches and Nikon Corp. cameras.

"In the late '60s, Japan's entire industry moved forward, and an alliance with Japan's government allowed low prices and stable exports and tariffs, ultimately hurting U.S. manufacturers and causing the demise of U.S. brands," said Mark V. Rosenker, VP-public affairs at the Electronics Industries Association, Arlington, Va. "What they really did was .*.*. sensitizing us to the need of improving our own quality and pushing us to be more competitive," he said.

One anomaly in Japan's competitiveness is its computer industry. In the late '50s and early '60s, Japan's ministry of trade decided U.S. computer manufacturing was the most efficient way to start a computer industry. Today, Fujitsu, Hitachi and NEC are strong at home but only starting to make great headway abroad.

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