Creeping bilingualism has long been the rule in these polyglot United States, though our definitive second language has yet to be determined. Some consider French too fussy, German irredeemably polysyllabic and Spanish somehow sloppy. Russian has political overtones, Hebrew is impossible and Basque is obscure.

Japanese may yet emerge as the people's choice. It is the right language for the imperative mode, for triumphant grunts such as "Banzai!" and "Hai!" The effectiveness of a stockbroker's "Bay!" and "Sell!" and the boss' "You're fired!" can be greatly enhanced if barked in Japanese. Japanese commands are mantras of authority: when pronounced with intensity, they are oral karate chops.

The language of soft-sell with which Japan addresses the American homeowner of the scaled-down 1980s, however, speaks of puritanism with style, tradition that looks up-to-date and simplicity that's sophisticated. Take Japanese furniture: it can be folded and stacked, and its scale fits the tight spaces of a shrinking world.

Tatami mats are an ideal substitute for wall-to-wall acrylic shag and a rejoinder to a $5,000 Persian carpet. Made of a thin layer of tightly woven rice straw wrapped around compressed rice straw, a tatami mat measures 36 by 72 inches, is two inches thick and comes edged in black cotton. Japanese rooms are measured by the number of tatamis needed to cover the floor.

Over the tatami goes the futon: eight layers of cleaned, combed and felted raw cotton batting -- a bumpless, lumpless mattress. Folded over, it becomes a low chair or a sofa. The futon has no bounce -- it's soft but not squishy -- but it is firm enough for almost any bureaucrat's aching back. READERS' NOTE

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Zabutons are 24-inch-square floor cushions made with the same cotton batting and encased in print covers. They are stackable, practical and pretty. A tower of zabutons is a focal point in any room.

In such an environment -- just a futon, some saki and thou -- the thing to wear is a hippari, a loose-fitting jacket-length version of the kimono for either men or women. It features generous slits under the arm and one big pocket on the side. A hippari's message is: I am relaxed, and you can relax too. To help, bring out the sake bottle, called a tokkuri, a small-spouted porcelain vase that holds less than half a pint. You'll find hot rice wine is the ideal lubricant for a discussion on bilingualism.

Tatami. $80. Futon, twin. $73. Futon, queen size. $103. Futon covers. $42 and $80, depending on size, material and design. Zabuton. $20. Cover. $15. Shinera. Georgetown Park, Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW. 342-1587.

Hippari. In cotton, $38. In wool and cotton, $52. Sake set. $15. Full Circle, 317 Cameron St., Alexandria. 683-4500.