TOKYO (AP) _ Whatever happened to blaming the Japanese?

It wasn't long ago that former presidential candidate Paul Tsongas was telling voters, ''The Cold War is over and Japan won,'' and Michael Crichton's novel ''Rising Sun'' was topping bestseller lists with its message that Americans are ''at war'' with Japan.

It was only last winter that U.S.-based Japanese companies and Japanese- Americans were targets of vandalism and threatening phone calls, and local U.S. officials were spurning Japanese goods to ''buy American.''

Things have calmed a bit.

Japanese interviewed Friday after the second U.S. presidential debate - noteworthy like the first for its lack of Japan-bashing - said they were relieved that America's once-alarming tendency to lay its economic troubles at Japan's feet seems to have waned.

''We are heartened that the ... presidential contenders are taking a very limited attitude about the economic and trade issues,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa.

Some observers warned, however, that tensions were likely to pick up again after the presidential election - no matter who is in the White House.

Indeed, the conditions that provoked Japan-bashing this year haven't changed much. As Democratic candidate Bill Clinton himself noted in Thursday night's debate, ''Just today a record high trade deficit was announced with Japan.''

That was not completely accurate. Japan did announce an overall record trade surplus for September, but the U.S. bilateral deficit with Japan was only at its fifth-highest level.

Still, no end to the massive trade imbalances is in sight. One difference between now and then, though, is that Japan is also suffering a severe economic slowdown.

''One year ago, Americans were thinking that the Japanese were so mighty, so big, something they should be afraid of. Now we're not so overwhelming. We've also had some weakness,'' said Eichi Furukawa, a former Foreign Minister officer who published a book last December predicting that anti-Japan fervor would abate.

And where Americans once feared Japan was buying up America, today Japanese direct investment has slowed to a trickle. ''Many regions in the States really want Japanese investment. And they found out it's not free,'' Furukawa said.

He said another reason was that Americans realized, as Japanese officials have long been telling them, that they ''have to put their own house in order'' economically.

Robert Orr, a Japan expert at Temple University in Tokyo, said Japan- bashing began to die during the primaries when candidates realized it wasn't playing as an issue.

''What people really felt was the problem was Bush,'' he said. ''There isn't a thing they can do about the Japanese, but they can vote Bush out of office.''

In addition, Orr said, today's inward focus is a symptom of the late stages of a presidential campaign, when the candidates seek to attack each other.

But he and others say U.S.-Japan tensions will likely intensify after the election.

''The weather will be stormier than it's ever been,'' Orr said. ''The trade numbers are going right through the ceiling.''

As in the first debate, there were a few barbs flung at Japan Thursday night. Clinton, echoing his convention acceptance speech, said, ''We can't have any more instances like what happened when Mr. Bush went to Japan and the Japanese prime minister said he felt sympathy for our country.''

But rather than attacking Japanese arrogance, as Americans did when they first heard Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's comments last January, Clinton merely used it as a rallying cry against Bush.

''We have to be the strongest economic power in the world. That's what got me into this race - so we could rebuild the American economy.''

And Ross Perot repeated his call to Japan and Germany to play a larger role in keeping global peace.

''If I can get you to defend me and I can spend all my money building industry, that's a home run for me. Coming out of World War II, it made sense. Now, the other superpowers need to do their part.''