By Justin Martin

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Among the K-12 set, Japanese language instruction is on the increase. The Japan Foundation Language Center reports that more than 1,700 public and private schools in the U.S. now offer Japanese, double the number found in 1991. The largest concentration of such programs is on the West Coast, with Washington State taking the lead. About 10% of its 2,266 schools offer Japanese instruction on-site; another 3% are reached by having Japanese classes beamed in by satellite from Spokane. Oregon, meanwhile, starts 'em young. The state offers Japanese in 22 of its 1,000 elementary schools, including two so-called immersion schools where half the instruction is in English, half in Japanese. Kids even learn math and science in Japanese. Elsewhere, a handful of states, including Indiana, Iowa, and Virginia, have launched vigorous Japanese-language initiatives. ''Economic development is one goal,'' says Stu Huffman, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. ''We have hopes of attracting Japanese interest in building auto plants in particular.'' Among Indiana's 360 public high schools, about 40 now have Japanese classes. The language is offered in such factory towns as Connersville (see photo) and Gary. South Dakota is now the sole state with no schools offering Japanese. Just when the U.S. seems finally to be getting the message, Japan's economy is turning sour. Is it time to learn Chinese instead? Interest in that bottomed out right after Tiananmen Square but has rebounded a bit of late, and some 200 U.S. high schools now offer it. -- J.M.