TOKYO (AP) _ Chrysler today debuted its much-ballyhooed right-hand drive Jeep Cherokee, the first U.S. car to be sold in Japan with the steering wheel on the right to match Japanese roads.

''I would never buy an American car with a steering wheel on the left side,'' said potential customer Yoshikazu Kasahara as he slipped behind the wheel of the car at the Tokyo Imported Automobile Show. ''But next time, I think I'll buy one of these.''

Other U.S. makers and trade officials are sure to closely watch sales of the Cherokee. Japanese officials have long said American cars do not sell well here because of the placement of the steering wheel.

Like the British, Japanese drive on the left side of the road. European makers already sell cars here with right-side steering wheels, and Japanese companies have sold cars with left-hand drive in the United States since they first entered the North American market.

''Now Chrysler is making an effort as the first U.S. auto maker to put the steering wheel on the right,'' said Osamu Nagata, general manager of marketing for Chrysler Japan Sales.

He said 380 people have already placed orders for the right-hand Jeeps, which go on sale Jan. 20 and will cost $29,800. Chrysler hopes to sell a modest 2,500 Jeeps here this year, up from 1,457 last year.

The four-day imported automobile show is being held as part of a government ''action program'' to promote sales of imported cars following the trade mission led by President Bush a year ago. Organizers say they expect 250,000 visitors.

On display at the show are 192 car models from the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Sweden and Australia.

Japan's trade surplus with its major trading partners, particularly Europe and the United States, has surged in recent years.

Nearly three-fourths of Japan's $40 billion imbalance with the United States came from trade in automobiles and auto parts in 1991, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Sales of imported vehicles fell 7.7 percent last year to just 184,615, and accounted for less than 5 percent of the Japanese car market.

Of the total, Germany sold 57 percent. U.S.-made vehicles accounted for 20 percent - and many of those came from auto plants owned by Honda, Nissan or Toyota in the United States.

Imported cars still have a luxury image in Japan, and much of the recent drop is attributed to Japan's slumping economy.