Susan-san, Warutto Wittoman wa ii gakko desuka?" the teacher asked. (Susan, is Walt Whitman a good school?)

"Hai. I gakko desu -- ichiban ii gakko desu," she answered without a pause.

(Yes, it's a good school -- the best school.)

Japanese came to Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda with a blonde, blue-eyed World War II language intelligence officer named Jean Morden, whose popularity in the school has done almost as much for interest in the language as "Shogun" and the trade imbalance.

"My father said I was crazy and I would never learn it. But he sees me late at night in my room working on my Japanese. Now he's helping me look at colleges that have Japanese programs," said Jon Coss.

"At my parents' dinner parties, they love to tell people I'm taking Japanese," said Monika Koval.

"My grandmother took one of my tests home to show all her friends," said Carol Mansfield.

Japanese, with a reputation in the United States as one of the world's more difficult and less useful languages, has enjoyed a mild comeback from the World War II years when the U.S. government trained many of today's Japan specialists -- including Morden -- to help in the war effort. Its recent popularity can be attributed to another kind of war, however -- the trade war.

"It relates directly to the economy," said Richard Brod of the Modern Language Association. "As Japan becomes not merely an exporting nation but also an importing nation and a market for U.S. goods, language becomes important.

"Few Amnerican business representatives in Japan speak the language. That's fine when you're buying, but not when you're selling," he said.

"The Japanese program gives our students a step up in the work-a-day world and we certainly endorse it," said Whitman principal Jerome Marco.

The number of students enrolled in foreing language courses in U.S. secondary schools and colleges has declined over the past 10 years as fewer colleges required a foreign language for admission or graduation. But an increasing interest in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and other non-Western languages has begun to make a dent in those figures.

"In the past, language study was identified with literature study. But more and more students now are gaining interest in business, and are doing double majors in Japanese and economics, for example," said Eleanor H. Jorden, Cornell University linguistics professor and president of The Association of Teachers of Japanese.

In Montgomery County, an ad hoc advisory committee comprised of foreign language teachers, citizens and school staff is currently making the most comprehensive review of the foreign language curriculum in over a decade. By next April the committee will produce a report that will suggest ways the county can act on some of the recommendations made last year by a presidential commission on foreign languages and international studies.

"People are saying, 'Why not move away from the traditional languages?'" said Louise Winfield, coordinator for foreign languages.

"There's a lot of talk in the community about the value of Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic. We're reacting to the realities of the world today," she said.

Morden, 57, came to Whitman two years ago from Paint Branch High School as a French teacher and began the Japanese class last year. Now there are 57 students in two beginning Japanese classes and 10 students in the second level class.

She first taught Japanese at Paint Branch seven years ago, and many of her students from those years have gone on to work or study in Japan.Janet Ikeda, a third generation Japanese-American who first began to learn Japanese in Morden's class, went to the University of Hawaii and won the Prince Akihito scholarship last year to study the language for a year in Japan.

But the course at Paint Branch has not continued after Morden's departure, making Marco's point that the teacher is the program and that it probably would not be offered at Whitman if Morden, hired as a resource teacher, had not wanted to teach it.

The report issued late last year by the president's commission made $185 million worth of recommendations, including one proposal that initially 20 and eventually 60 language and international studies high schools be established to attract students interested in foreign languages and foreign affairs. Those recommendations will be addressed in the next year by the Department of Education.

In 1965, 27.4 percent of students nationwide in grades 7 through 12 took a foreign language and in 1978 the number was down to 17.8 percent, according to a survey by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL).

"It's not as bleak as it was a few years ago," said Dorothy Huss, assistant director."The decline is leveling off and some programs are increasing. There are optimistic signals."

Richard Thompson, chief of the Department of Education's International Studies Branch, also believes there is reason for optimism.

"The interest in foreign language no longer comes from a belief that Americans should 'know thy enemy' as in the days of Sputnik and the National Defense Education Act [of 1958], but today we are aware that it is in our national interest," he said.

The number of Montgomery County students in foreign language classes is higher than the national percentage at about 48 percent. Spanish has the most students, followed by French, German, Latin, Japanese and Russian.

In Prince George's County about 25 percent of the secondary school students take a foreign language. Foreign language is not required in either Montgomery or Prince George's county schools.

Many of Morden's students said they signed up for the Japanese class because they were in Spanish or French level 5 or 6 and wanted to study a different language. After three months, they can ask and answer simple questions in Japanese, recite proverbs, sing "Sakura" (Cherry Blossom), write the two 46-letter alphabets called Hirangana and Katakana, and have started on the more complex characters called "kanji."

"It's so much easier than French," said Betsy Rowe, who along with many of her classmates were delighted to find that Japanese verbs don't have conjugations.

"The students quickly acquire a fluency that I've not seen in French or Spanish," said Morden. "The verbs are easier, and Japanese is easier for Americans to pronounce than French."

Morden warns her students against a feeling of false security, because Japanese is a language that is deceptively easy to gain a basic conversational proficiency in, but one that takes considerably more effort to master even the basic 1,850 characters that high schools students in Japan must learn in order to read a newspaper.

At the end of the first year, Morden's students learn about 100 characters.

Part of their class time is spent on Japanese culture, and Morden's husband Roy, a retired Army chaplain who was in a Japanese class Morden taught to U.S. servicemen during the postwar occupation of Japan, has made a steady stream of trips to the Japanese Embassy to borrow movies. "They're beginning to wonder what's going on over here," Morden laughed.

"She said she has to keep herself from the temptation of spending too much time on the culture, because her students have so little knowledge and so much interest in Japan.

"I thought Japan had gone through a culture shock in 1960 and jumped into the technological age, but they still have many traditions," said Richard Sowalsky.