In 1963, a hit on U.S. pop charts was a Japanese tune called, in this country at least, "Sukiyaki." The import was renamed by its American handlers after a food dish whose appellation was catchy to our ears. It didn't matter that the title had nothing to do with the love song.
We've come a long since then. Or have we? Americans drive Japanese cars, work at Japanese-owned plants in the United States and savor the delicate tastes of sushi and sake. Still, many can't distinguish the island nation of Japan from other countries in Asia. It's about time we got beyond the sukiyaki nonsense and enhanced our understanding of Japan by learning its language.
Granted, Japanese-- nihongo-- is a mercilessly difficult language, reflecting subtleties of culture that are too often referred to as inscrutable. Enrollment in Japanese language classes in California and around the country is up sharply, making Japanese the most popular non-European language in high schools. So keen is the interest that the National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded nearly $400,000 to a project to develop a Japanese language test, like the ones for Spanish, French and others, by 1993 in order to measure proficiency for college admission.