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.''
The economic link between the two nations is much in evidence in Tennessee. The state is home to 22 Japanese-owned businesses, including the mammoth Nissan truck plant 11 miles up the road in Smyrna, the largest Japanese plant in the world outside Japan. The various plants and manufacturing facilities add up to a
The role of the Japan Center of Tennessee, as outlined by the governor and legislature, was basically limited to the injunction: ''Provide a benign environment for Japanese industries.''
With that as a starting point, Dr. Seeman has gone on to create a full program of Japanese cultural events, including the performing of Japanese plays; the showing of Japanese films; lectures on such topics as law in Japan, literature, and Japanese folk tales; seminars on robotics; an exhibit of Japanese photographs; and much more.
''There is a kind of Japanese mystique that appeals to many people around here,'' she says. ''Sometimes they haven't been anywhere or traveled anywhere, and it brings some drama and excitement to their lives.''
The North Carolina Japan Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh straddles the fence that divides the worlds of business and academe. Supported by the state and designed to encourage Japanese investment in the state, it also provides a full range of language and literature courses.
Neither Japan center focuses exclusively on an American audience, or even a Japanese-American audience. One of the early commitments of the Tennessee center was to provide a Japanese language school for the children of Japanese businessmen. The Japanese language is so complicated that it must be studied throughout a child's formative years. Japanese businessmen were afraid to take their children out of school and off to America, lest they miss the boat, or in Japanese parlance, the shinkan - the bullet train.