Thousands of venomous black widow spiders arrive on Japan's shores and the nation panics.

"Watch Out! Poisonous Spiders Have Landed," trumpeted the country's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, to its 10 million readers. "If Bitten, You Could Die."Like the "black ships" Commodore Matthew Perry sent to force Japan to open to foreign trade in 1854, the spiders which turned up in Japanese ports last week appeared to be some kind of invincible foreign invasion.

Public bulletins were distributed to schools and over local airwaves. Spider venom antidote was rushed in from Australia.

But then, after a week of hysteria, the invasion turned out to be less of a threat than it first appeared. As the panic eased, Japan adopted the same approach to the black widows as it has to previous foreign menaces: coexistence.

The tale began Nov. 23 when intrepid araneologists from the Japan Spiders Academic Society announced they had found 74 black widows hiding out in a port near Osaka, Japan's second-largest city. They said the invaders were probably arriving as stowaways on lumber shipped to Japan from the tropics.

The investigation widened, pursued by a frenzied media. Hundreds - no, thousands - of the spiders turned out to be lurking in Osaka. Then they were found at Yokkaichi port, 70 miles away. Tokyo, it was rumored, would be next.

After a few days, something else began coming from Australia: scornful chuckles.

"The reports I've heard from Japan about people going into convulsions and dying within minutes of being bitten are just a load of rubbish," scoffed Julian White, an Australia poison expert.

The slow-acting venom, White said, may be poisonous but it's not deadly. It can make life miserable for a while, "but it's not going to kill you."

Moreover, once Japanese scientists looked into the matter, it emerged that the black widows had probably been in Japan for years - without a single report of so much as a nibble.