WHEN Tanya Renee Hamlin won the first-place prize in her division of a statewide high school Japanese-language speech contest here, her award underlined a new interest in studying the language. A second-year student of Japanese, Tanya gave a prizewinning speech about what it was like to be the only black person in her Japanese class. ``I'm in a sea of white faces - an oddity,'' she said.
The complexion of Japanese-language classes is changing rapidly. Ten years ago, the language was offered almost exclusively at schools with large percentages of Asian-American students, whose parents wanted them to keep in touch with their cultural heritage. Now the motivation is different.
``The Japanese are going to buy the US, and I don't want to get lost in the shuffle,'' said Karen Fritts, another winner at the Seattle speech contest.
Here on the West Coast, ``Pacific Rim'' is the buzzword phrase for the future. In increasing numbers, high school students are tackling one of the world's most difficult languages because they believe it will be a crucial factor in determining their success as workers in the next century.
The boom in Japanese language instruction has developed so quickly that nobody yet seems to have comprehensive statistics on the trend. But everyone involved in Japanese-language education unequivocally states that the numbers are shooting up, and anecdotal evidence is impressive.
When the Japan-America Society of Washington first sponsored a speech contest for high school students two years ago, 17 contestants were involved. This year, 140 students showed up. With 60 public high schools and a handful of private schools teaching Japanese, Washington offers the most Japanese-language instruction at the secondary level of any state in the continental United States.
For students who don't have the advantage of being in a school district that offers Japanese, there is language instruction via satellite TV. Atsumi McCauley was an instructor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., when she began her electronic classroom three years ago.
``I give homework every single day and an exam every two weeks,'' she says. During her 40-minute classes, students can call an 800 number to ask her questions if something is not clear.
She started with 39 students three years ago. Today, she teaches 300 students scattered throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska.
Like Washington, Oregon has several school districts that offer a variety of Japanese-language programs ranging from preschool to high school levels. Eugene's partial-immersion project is perhaps the boldest in design. Borrowing from the Quebec experience, when schools in that Canadian province were mandated to carry out instruction in French, the Eugene option teaches not just Japanese, but also other subjects - social studies, art, mathematics - in the target language.
Despite the huge infusion of Japanese money into California, that state has yet to catch up with its northern neighbors in offering programs for Japanese-language instruction. But a conference held in early April by the state's Foreign Languages Unit identified the problems that have been hampering all of the states as they increase Japanese-language instruction: a shortage of appropriate teaching materials, and a shortage of trained teachers.
David Arlington, the foreign language specialist in Oregon's Department of Education, says that lack of good textbooks puts so much pressure on the teachers to prepare material that it leads to early burnout. Their premature departure exacerbates the problem of a low pool of trained teachers from which to draw.
At the Center for Improvement of Teaching Japanese Language and Culture in High School, improbably located in Urbana, Ill., director Carol Bond puts it bluntly: ``Some of these teachers are coming into the profession through the back door.''
She gives voice to something that most concerned parties admit readily, but only off the record: Supply cannot meet the sudden overwhelming demand.
``We don't have a core of systematically prepared people in whom we have much confidence,'' one administrator says. In another state, an education official says that while universities are authorized to handle certification of teachers in Japanese-language instruction, they still do not have clear-cut guidelines in place.
Articulation between secondary-school and university courses is another issue. Graduating high school seniors have been finding that their language training does not mesh well with the course work offered at the college level.
For all the problems, there is another, brighter side to the picture. ``If our weakness is that not everybody always knows what's going on everywhere, our strength is that we have considerable latitude in developing programs,'' says Mr. Arlington in Oregon. ``The imagination of teachers has turned into commitment, and this commitment has given the state a very good name.''
At the Center for Improvement of Teaching Japanese, Ms. Bond also emphasizes the importance of developing creative approaches to the instruction of this difficult language. Beyond that, she praises the teachers' eagerness to share techniques and ideas. ``It's amazing - there's very little of the professional play-it-close-to-the-vest attitude that you sometimes find,'' she says.
Perhaps the most impressive program to date can be found not in the US, but in British Columbia.
In 1987, that province's Ministry of Education received $11 million from the government, and a mandate to construct the Pacific Rim Initiatives within three years.
The initiatives consist of three components. The first is to provide international educational opportunities through travel for both teachers and students. The plan also includes the task of developing material about the Pacific Rim that can be integrated into the existing curriculum at all grade levels and within all subjects. The final responsibility is to emphasize a strong language program in both Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.