Comparing educational systems in the United States and Japan has become a popular pastime in this country. Almost invariably, the United States comes up short in academic comparisons.

Making comparisons is one of the ways people better themselves. The United States would do well to cull the positive aspects of educational systems wherever they are found and to incorporate them in the American system when feasible.But comparisons between the United States and Japan don't always meet the apples-to-apples and oranges-to-oranges test.

Some intrinsic differences in the characters of the two countries don't translate fairly. The "melting pot" history of the United States creates a much more diverse school population to be served. This country also has the egalitarian position that virtually all students are eligible for virtually all programs - a policy that is messier and more wasteful of resources, but more in keeping with the "opportunity for all" American heritage.

In Japan, testing at several junctures along the way eliminates some students from some programs, steering the cream into prestigious academic settings.

One American who taught in Japan found the system to be so stressful that some students committed suicide. Increasingly, magazine and newspaper articles document the toll taken on the Japanese people in general by the drive to succeed.

Somewhere between the overweening drive of the Japanese and the lackadaisical approach of too many American students there must be an ideal that neither country has achieved.

One interesting comparison of education in the two countries was made in a recent Gallup survey of students in the two countries. The results indicate that attitudes, not aptitudes, make the big difference in the bottom-line scores.

The survey of students in grades 7 to 12 showed that the typical American student has an after-school job and spends three evenings a week in search of entertainment. The majority plan to go to college after high school.

The Japanese student rarely goes out in the evenings and is more likely to devote after-school hours to homework, private tutoring and formal study classes. The majority will go directly into the work force, but they are better prepared to do so than the American students coming out of high school. A high school diploma in Japan may be tantamount to a baccalaureate degree in America, some educators say.

The Japanese system keeps 94 percent of its students in school through high school. About a quarter of America's students drop out before obtaining a diploma, the Gallup survey noted. Adult illiteracy is a serious problem in the United States, virtually unheard of in Japan.

Fewer Japanese students start college, but a greater percentage who start complete their studies.

Yet another comparison notes that in Japan, teaching is a respected and honored profession. The salary gap between teachers and other professions is much narrower than in the United States.

The comparisons could go on ad infinitum, and in the end don't mean much. The United States education approach is unlikely ever to fully evolve into anything that resembles the Japanese system.

But it certainly couldn't hurt if some of the attitudes about the importance of education were to rub off as the two countries increasingly rub shoulders in the international marketplace.