When a natural disaster strikes a corner of the world - an earthquake, a tidal wave, a volcano eruption, a famine - the United States is usually among the first to send relief.

Using the Air Force's unique airlift capacity, public and private agencies fly in food, medicine, tents, blankets and medical personnel to stricken areas.After a devastating earthquake hit Kobe Jan. 17, killing more than 5,200 people, the United States and other countries tried to rush emergency aid to Japan.

They found that Japanese officialdom was uninterested in accepting help and in some cases hostile to the entire effort.

This surprised foreign disaster workers, but it should not have.

For the past half-century Japan has erected a regulatory obstacle course to prevent foreign goods from being sold in its market. The mind-set is so rigid that even in a crisis the bureaucracy was reluctant to accept overseas supplies - for free.

No foreign aid was too big or too small to get stiff-armed or delayed, while victims who could have been saved died.

When volunteer foreign doctors arrived, the Ministry of Health and Welfare sniffed that they would have to be licensed to practice in Japan before they could treat earthquake victims. Later the Foreign Ministry saw the madness in that ruling, and the doctors began providing care.

A flu epidemic threatened. The United States offered massive supplies of flu vaccine. We have enough, replied the bureaucrats. They didn't, and scores of elderly died of flu.

Americare, a U.S. relief organization, rushed in huge supplies of Tylenol, which officials shunted off to a warehouse. They explained that Tylenol was unsuited for Japanese bodies.

Perhaps the most maddening experience was by officials of Motorola's Japanese subsidiary. They knew the quake had disrupted telephone service in Kobe and, on foot and on bicycles, carried 150 cellular phones to the city.

They offered to lend the telephones at no charge and to pay for all calls made. Not so fast, said Kobe officials; the phones could not be handed out unless they had Kobe City stickers on them.

Unlike the bureaucrats, individual Japanese were grateful for the foreign help they got. And by now they know their true enemies: protectionist politicians, regulators, naysayers.