It used to grate on Dr. Esther Seeman, a scholar of East Asian affairs, that every Dec. 7 an academic colleague in the next office would raise a banner proclaiming ''Remember Pearl Harbor.''
''I sure haven't forgotten it,'' she says. ''But I would tell him that if we understood the Japanese at that time there wouldn't have been a Pearl Harbor.''
Fostering Japanese-American understanding and cooperation is now the life work of Dr. Seeman. She is director of the two-year-old Japan Center of Tennessee, at Middle Tennessee State University here. Along with the North Carolina Japan Center, it is one of two such centers now operating in the United States.
Although the two Japan centers concentrate largely on nonacademic matters, a number of other universities have initiated Japanese studies programs this fall. In fact, America's fascination with all things Japanese seems to be taking a decidedly academic turn:
* A Center on Japanese Business and Economics opened this fall at New York University's Graduate School of Business Administration. According to NYU president John Brademas, it is the first academic center in the US devoted exclusively to the study of business and economic relations between the two countries.
* The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is playing host to the Japan Management Studies Center, set up last spring to study relations between the two countries and develop data on the Japanese economy and its interaction with the US economy.
* The year-old US-Japan Study Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington was founded to study the political, economic , and security issues of mutual concern to the two nations. It actively involves the business community in forums and programs.
''The newfound interest in Japan and Japanese culture is a natural outgrowth of our political and economic ties,'' Dr. Seeman says. ''I can only see that interest continuing and expanding.''