Every day, it seems, more and more Japanese want to communicate -- in Chinese. One million Japanese, says Web magazine ChinaGate, are learning Mandarin and other Chinese dialects. At Japanese universities and schools, Mandarin has overtaken French and German to become the most popular language after English.

According to educators and business people, however, few students ever attain fluency. This is leading experts to question whether Japan is poised to lose business opportunities because it has too few Chinese speakers.

"In China both senior business people and officials, as well as staff, often don't speak much English or Japanese," says Masaaki Tanabe, a China investment adviser at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). The increase in capital tieups between the two countries, and the trend toward Japanese companies building and operating factories in China, he notes, have raised the stakes.