If you have wondered why so many people have been hammering away at computer literacy, here is one good reason. According to the American Productivity Center (APC), a Houston-based research group, "estimated national real output per employee in Japan [will] exceed that of the United States by the year 2000. Knowledgeable observers predict that by the turn of the century, Japan's real national productivity level, not just the growth rate, will be the highest in the industrial world -- significantly above the United States and far above all the European nations with the possible exception of Germany and France." (From Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1982.)

What does this have to do with computer literacy? For years, the Japanese have moved ahead in productivity at a faster pace than we have. This is because they have made a concerted national effort to further technologically advanced skills and industries. Unless we make a similar effort on a crash basis, the APC says we will fall behind permanently in the productivity race. The spur of Japanese competition may be a blessing. We have plenty of reasons to modernize already -- like the 12 million of our fellow citizens who are unemployed. Yet we have not done it.

These two critical problems -- unemployment and intensifying competition from abroad -- are inextricably linked. A necessary part of the solution for both is upgrading labor-force skills. Along with technology itself, these upgraded skills will determine how cost-effective we can be in producing new goods and services. If we aren't cost-effective, we will lose more markets at home and abroad. That will mean the loss of more jobs and sliding even further behind.

To get the job done will take at least three steps. First, and hardest of all, we need a clearer national commitment than we have. Second, we must recognize that it is not only machines that become obsolete. Attitudes, institutions, and skills do, too. Third, we must become educated ourselves and must teach our leaders to anticipate a faster, deeper pace of change for the rest of our lives. Education and training programs must assume the need for continual retraining. Each of us will need to know how to do more than one, inevitably replaceable, job.

We can succeed. It will not be the first time that we have played catch-up against ourselves or other nations. Not many people in the Western world thought we could deliver on Franklin D. Roosevelt's pledge to build 100,000 war planes a year to win World War II. We did it, just as we kept John F. Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Perhaps the goals of staying ahead of the Japanese, thinning the unemployment rolls at the same time, can make universal computer literacy that kind of national priority.

In a speech before the American Electronics Association (quoted in The Los Angeles Times, January 3), Samuel H. Armacost, president and chief executive officer of BankAmerica Corp., described the downward drift that we must stop:

Take a journey in time with me, back to the late 1950s and '60s. America stands supreme on the world economic stage. An inflation rate-of 1 1/2% to 2% a year means price stability. In addition:

* Unemployment of 3% is tantamount to full employment.

* Housing is plentiful, its cost is reasonable, mortgages are affordable.

* Detroit is the capital of the world motor-car industry, turning out 10 million to 12 million autos a year.

* New products and services pour from a seemingly bottomless cornucopia of innovation.

* The U.S. dollar fuels world trade.

* The productivity of the American worker is the highest in the world, and rising.

* From all over the globe, businessmen come to the United States to study the miracles of American management. Pundits speak of the dawning of a golden age, and, indeed, there is every reason to believe they are right.

But what of America today, a mere 20 years later? Unemployment is running at the 10% level -- a human and economic tragedy of incalculable proportions. In addition:

* The nation has experienced 10 years of rampant double-digit inflation.

* Housing is in short supply and expensive beyond belief.

* The productivity of the U.S. worker has been on a steady 10-year decline.

* The center of the automobile industry is no longer the Detroit/Dearborn axis, but rather the Osaka/Tokyo axis.

* Innovation has dried up and the new-product flow has been reduced from a torrent to a trickle.

* Public trust in American business is near its all-time low.

* World trade is threatened by protectionism sentiment, both here and abroad.

Pundits no longer speak of the dawning of a golden age, but, rather, of a tragic future. How did the United States manage to journey from there to here?

Our situation is chilling, but it is not irreversible. Consider where the Japanese were only two decades ago. They cut our lead far deeper and faster than most of us thought possible. Those who describe our faltering position as "irreversible" should remember that Japan started from nearly zero.

It is now 25 years since Japan committed itself to building a major electronics industry that would allow it to catch up with the rest of the industrialized world. In 1957, it passed a law, Extraordinary Measures for the Promotion of the Electronics Industry, which set in motion the governmental and business partnership that has proven such a successful strategy. In 1974, the oil crisis led Japan to reaffirm electronics as a top national priority. One spokesman said at the time that electronics technology is "energy-saving, resource-saving, labor-saving, and space-saving."

By 1980, Japan's electronics industry was 150 times greater in size than it was in the mid-'50s. It has been largely successful in challenging the dominance of U.S. consumer goods in worldwide markets. Now it is said to be planning an intensive 10-year effort to become dominant in artificial intelligence, in the socalled fifth generation of computers. Leadership in that area, it is anticipated, will enable Japan to dominate, in turn, a number of other Western industries.

How can we stem the tide? Those familiar with the technology field increasingly stress that we must improve education and training. And education needs to start at the lowest levels. Quite by accident, I spoke, within the same two days, to three outstanding businesspeople-engineers -- Lewis Branscomb, chief scientist and vice-president at IBM Corp.; Robert Noyce, one of the founders of Intel Corp.; and Robert Charpie, president of Cabot Corp. All three expressed grave concern about inadequacies in our elementary and secondary schools and our colleges. All three stressed that education must be our first priority if we are to recover our technology leadership.

Our schools certainly need plenty of help. Other nations do better both at the technical training all youngsters receive and at the training of that specially talented handful who go on to specialize in advanced electronics. We need to do much more, much better. And we dare not provide technical training at the expense of the liberal arts curriculum. It is liberal arts education that gives the best grounding in the ability to learn, change, and adapt -- the very qualities on which we must rely most heavily.

While almost every community can use help for its schools, the unemployed adult world needs help just as badly. When it comes to retraining masses of adults, most towns and cities lack even the institutional framework that the schools provide for educating youngsters.

It is clearly easier to educate young people about computers than it is to educate adults. Nevertheless, we must fight to put as much money and effort as possible into simultaneously teaching unemployed adults eomputer skills. One effective way of accomplishing this goal may be to train part of our vast pool of welleducated retirees as volunteer computer teachers. They could then teach younger adults who are out of work and who must acquire new, more usable skills.

Just about every job worth having in a few years will require knowledge of how to use a computer. Factory managers and workers will need to use robotics or numeric control of machining. Office managers and workers will need to know how to use word processors or to access databases. What we must build quickly is a rnulti-literate, multi-skilled work force. We have a long way to go. A national study found no more than 80% of the work force "functionally literate," that is, able to use reading and writing in their daily lives. We obviously have far less "computer literacy." If you exclude those who use the computer only for entertainment, probably no more than 4 million Americans are computer literate, according to Future Computing Inc., a Richardson, Tex., market research firm.

As unemployment mounted during the last year, public officials, in town after town, would ask, "What exactly can we do to attract new business and make new jobs that we're not doing?" I learned to stress these three steps: First, make your town or city one of the first to achieve 100% computer literacy. Second, as best you can, get people to think of unemployment as a natural, necessary time for retraining. Given the rate of technological change, more and more people will be shocked to find themselves displaced and needing to upgrade their skills. Permanent retraining must be built into the economy. Unless jobs await the retrained, even that will not work. Finally, we must understand that we can't make as many economically worthwhile jobs as we need without creating new businesses or helping existing ones to grow more rapidly.

In addition to increasing the number of computer literate U.S citizens, we have another pressing national need -- to create public policies that expand small business, entrepreneurship, and, therefore, jobs. Not long ago, a leading officer of a major U.S. multinational corporation made clear why expanding small business is an essential goal. Speaking about the foreign competition his company faced from low wage areas he said that his company had three business choices. It could 'emigrate, automate, or evaporate." He anticipated that it was likely to do a little if each. In 1981, Fortune 500 companies employed 600,000 fewer Americans than they had in 1979. If we want the government to be the employer of last, not first, resort, then obviously new, smaller growing companies will have to be equipped to provide the jobs we need.

Here, too, computers and computer literacy play a part. Whatever management edge large companies have had over smaller ones is being eliminated technologically. The microcomputer is as much an equalizer as the handgun was in the old western showdown between the burly villain and the puny, otherwise overmatched, hero.

Every business must be able to prepare plans swiftly and to vary assumptions about each element in them. Until recently, such planning was beyond the resources and ability of small-company owners and managers. The all-important contingency plan, allowing the owner to deal quickly with unexpected events, was rare, even in well-run small companies. It was just too hard to draw one up. With the microcomputer, such planning is feasible, even easy. Soon it will be standard practice. These new management strengths will, sooner or later, show up in higher survival and growth rates for small companies and in more cost-cutting innovations.

There is plenty for each of us to do to promote technological education and advancement. We need not turn the United States into a pale version of "Japan Inc." Our strong suit is entrepreneurship, not bureaucracy. But what Japan learned must be relearned by the hundreds of thousands of American community leaders who will form our consensus-making engine.

These grass-roots leaders will move us forward steadily, once they make up their minds about the direction we must take. In the meantime, we can take heart from The Washington Post's annual survey of things and people that were "in" or "out" as the old year ended. It turns out that "computer literacy" is on the "in" list, along with "hanging upside down" and "goat cheese." We don't have a thing to worry about.