Dr. Kazuhiro Fuchi, considered one of Japan's great scientific minds, is standing in a New York hotel lobby, looking for his bed. Since someone forgot to fold out the studio couch in his room, he's come down to check with the desk clerk, who explains the bed is there, but hidden; a maid will come and make it up for him.
If only such details eluded Dr. Fuchi in the lab, many people in the United States would feel very much better.
Dr. Fuchi, head of the Institute for New Generation Computer Technology, sits at the apex of Japan's much-vaunted ''fifth generation'' computer project. The project is an attempt to put that country in the forefront of advanced computer technology and tomorrow's global information-based economy - both in one scientific swoop.
He and a group of 40 researchers are working to create high-speed machines that simulate human reasoning in the realm known as artificial intelligence (AI). The US has long dominated the field. But the Japanese, with their elite core of ''silicon samurai'' and $450 million from the government over 10 years, hope to leapfrog current technology and be a leader in the knowledge industry of the 1990s.
The project is a test for them. Their country is entering a period that demands more creative thinking from its science and technology community. Japan's consensus-seeking, team-oriented approach to technical innovation has made it a master at engineering things that appeal to consumers and quickly translate into profit. But in areas of fundamental research - which require leaps of the imagination - they often have lagged. The fifth-generation project will require both good engineering and bold ideas.
''In the past Japan was so weak and poor it couldn't do much in the way of creating anything,'' Dr. Fuchi said in an interview during a visit here. ''Japanese technology was always following others.
''If Japan does a good job (in this project), other countries will appreciate that effort,'' he added. ''In that case Japan will have a more stable position in international society.''
Dr. Fuchi seems intent on breaking the notion that Japan only improves on what others create. The 40 researchers assembled around him are considered some of the country's best and brightest. They are also all under 35, a factor which, he hopes, will spur flexible thinking.
Amiable, astute, with a thick shock of wavy hair, Fuchi is a maverick himself. When a young scientist at Japan's Electrotechnical Laboratory, he once marched off the job for a month after a flap with colleagues. He also was likely to show up late for work, partly, he recalled, because ''I didn't like to get up early.''
''Fuchi is not mainstream Japanese culture,'' says Alexander Randall, who is president of a Boston-based international consulting firm and who recently spent some time with him in Japan. ''It's his greatest asset and his greatest liability.''
He is basically the ''intellectual visionary behind the whole deal,'' adds Pamela McCorduck, co-author of a current book on the fifth-generation project. ''Fuchi had the idea for the way computing should go back in the early 1970s. He would be a visionary in any society.''
Fuchi recognizes the pitfalls of a group approach. The danger in unifying everything, he says, is to introduce too much bureaucracy, which can hobble the research process: ''The important thing is how to lessen the regulation and bureacracy.''
What about his American rivals? ''No one knows if the Japanese project will succeed first,'' he said. ''We started fast - but that doesn't mean we will reach the goal first.''
Plenty of people in the US think Japan could get there first, which has triggered a stiff response here. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is seeking $50 million in fiscal 1984 to use for advanced computer technology, some of which will go for artificial intelligence and software development. It may spend as much as a half a billion over the next seven years in the area.
In Austin, Texas, the Microelectronics & Computer Technology Corporation, a consortium of 13 major US companies, is setting up shop to do research and development in high-risk technology fields. Some of its efforts will focus on areas targeted in the fifth-generation project. Many small start-up companies doing artificial-intelligence research have spun off from universities in the past year. Big firms, too, from IBM to Hewlett-Packard, are pressing ahead in the field.
The debate now - one bound to intensify in the future - is whether the US needs a post-Sputnik-like effort to counter the Japanese challenge. Certainly Japan does hold a few trump cards. Its joint project is larger in scope than any single effort in the US. Funding for the project, though, has to be approved each year. And not everyone in Japanese government and industry endorses the idea or Fuchi.
Japan's motive for pursuing the goal is deeply rooted. It reflects a sense of nationalism as much as any economic drive. ''It is almost a sense of survival with them,'' says Earl Dowdy, a researcher with the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. ''There is a definite difference between what the Japanese are looking to get out of this and what the US is.''
At the same time, however, the US is entering the derby far from flat-footed. America has a much bigger corporate science community from which to draw and has done most of the pioneering work in the field.
There is also the cultural argument that the social and organizational homogeneity of the Japanese doesn't lend itself to new thinking. (A myth, reply some observers.) The Japanese project also requires meshing the know-how of many fields, from computer architecture to psychology, something to which Japan hasn't been accustomed.
''Innovation comes from diversity,'' says Arno Penzias, Nobel laureate in physics and research vice-president of American Telephone & Telegraph's Bell Laboratories. ''America's strength is in its diversity. It is the oddball in the end that makes all the difference.''
Some US experts see a peril in overreacting to the Japanese. One worry: a crash effort in one area will sap valuable talent from other fields. ''Here we have the whole United States making a massive response to what 40 fellows in Tokyo are doing,'' says Russell Kirsch, an AI expert at the National Bureau of Standards.
On the other hand, history offers many examples of technologically mature societies that started out copying others and later became leading innovators. Besides, some observers point out, the project will require more engineering than raw invention.
From his fifth-generation project offices on the 21st floor of a Tokyo skyscraper, Dr. Fuchi occasionally peers out toward the Pacific and the US beyond. He realizes a debate is building in this country over how to respond to his project. What he sees here is a nation that, yes, is a ''little unorganized.'' But he also recognizes that the US is big enough to support many research thrusts in advanced computer technology - and he is well aware Japan has not ''caught up yet.''
A strength of the Japanese approach, he says, lies in its ''global vision'' - the fact that his team has a target, something to work toward. In fact, Fuchi pointed out that his fifth-generation project is open for other countries to join in. No US firms have taken him up on the offer. Dr. Fuchi, nevertheless, sees the Japanese challenge stirring a global quest to create machines that eventually will have an impact on all civilization.
''The goal we set up is a kind of a race for a kind of Olympic Games,'' he said. ''If we have more participants, it's better.'' But he also knows the value of Japan's breaking the tape first. ''As a research group,'' he added ''it would be good to try to get the gold medal.''