New York — Though they spoke very little English, for five Japanese tourists hugging the railing at Battery Park on the southernmost tip of Manhattan the word choice, if not the pronunciation, was easy -''Liberty.''
The lady with the torch is a near universal symbol. And that universal appeal is what corporate, civic, and media leaders hope will prompt private contributions to finance a major rehabilitation of the Statue of Liberty.
A 21-member presidential commission was established to raise funds for the statue's 100th-birthday restoration in 1986. Called the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centenary Commission, the panel is headed by Lee Iacocca, chairman of the board of the Chrysler Corporation.
Sounding the ''can-do'' spirit that has marked his business career, Mr. Iacocca announced here recently that corporations have pledged $45 million of the $230 million restoration goal.
The level of grass-roots support for the campaign also has been extraordinary , Iacocca says. Schoolchildren have been among the most active participants, well before the school campaign's offical start up in February 1984. They have begun hundreds of classroom and school projects and have already donated ''many thousands of dollars in pennies, dimes, and quarters, just as children did in the 19th century to raise money for the statue's pedestal,'' he said.
One fund-raising plan has been initiated by American Express. From now until Dec. 31, the company will donate one cent to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation for each US purchase charged to an American Express card and each purchase of American Express Travelers Cheques. ''It is an easy cause to support ,'' James D. Robinson III, chairman of American Express, recently told a gathering of business officials and reporters at the corporation's New York headquarters via satellite from his Paris office.
No newcomer to mixing business with philanthropy for the statue, the company was authorized by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to serve as the official currency exchange agent for coin and precious metals into American dollars at Ellis Island. It was an effort to stem widespread corruption and exploitation of newly arrived immigrants.
The renovations will be the first major overhaul of the monunment since its flame was lit in 1886, and ''a much needed one,'' says David L. Moffitt, superintendent of the statue for the National Park Service. ''All of the statue's interior iron strapwork, which supports the copper skin, must be replaced because of corrosion. We'll wash her down with soap and water to get the dirt and grime off. But it will not change her exterior appearance significantly,'' he says. ''She'll still be green.''
Persons wishing to contribute to renovations can write Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 1986, New York, N.Y., 10018.