"Almost no-one in Britain spoke Japanese"
August 12, 2015 11:56 AM   Subscribe

The UK's desperate-measures approach to teaching Japanese during WWII, and its lasting impact. [SLBBC]

"When war with Japan first broke out at the end of 1941 Britain had been woefully unprepared - not least because almost no-one in Britain could speak Japanese.

The only place that taught the language was the School of Oriental and African Studies, now known as SOAS, part of the University of London. So an 18-month course was devised there for bright sixth-formers with a flair for languages."
posted by terretu (12 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting read. Makes me wonder about the Anglo-American relationship in 1942, seeing as the USN had cracked the Japanese cyphers by then and had Japanese speakers translating much of the IJA and IJN communications.

Thanks for sharing.
posted by dazed_one at 12:25 PM on August 12, 2015


Great read! Some good personal stories:
One of those who successfully applied was Guy de Moubray, who died in June at the age of 90. He'd been born in Malaya, where his parents were still living, and was at Loretto School near Edinburgh.

"My parents became prisoners of war in February 1942 and it was around then that I put in for this scholarship exam," he said in an interview recorded by SOAS, "partly because of my parents, but partly because I wanted to get away from school a year earlier than I otherwise would have done."
. . .
Later, he was the first British soldier ashore when Singapore was liberated. There he found his parents, whom he hadn't seen since he was 14, still alive after three years of Japanese captivity.
And a nice bit of social commentary:
Ronald Dore, another Dulwich Boy, remembers that the group divided naturally into two - the public school types stuck together, and so did the lower middle-class products of grammar schools (of which Dore was one). He thought it a reflection of how class-ridden 1940s Britain was.
Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 12:27 PM on August 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Bletchley Park, desperately in need of translators for Pacific intelligence traffic, ran its own six-month crash-course in Japanese. The first course was so small they 'met in a room over gas showrooms in Bedford in the Broadway opposite John Bunyan's statue.' They only had enough time to teach prospective translators the words for things like "submarine" and "aircraft carrier," and never bothered with un-military parlance like the words for "you" or "me".
posted by steef at 12:45 PM on August 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


The US had thousands of US citizens who were bilingual in Japanese and English, people like my wife's grandparents. They could have recruited these people and sent some to the UK. Unfortunately they spent the war locked up in US interment camps in places like Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The only good thing to come out of that was the invention of spam musubi.
posted by w0mbat at 12:50 PM on August 12, 2015 [22 favorites]


Japanese Americans were actually recruited and trained as linguists, though I don't think any were sent to the UK.
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:57 PM on August 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


"The Japanese liked him, according to Cortazzi. "I think they respected Peter. He had great personal charm, he was interested in Japanese culture, he would always be repeating a haiku at every possible occasion. And when we were working for the establishment of a Japan festival in Britain in 1991 we were clear that the only person who could really be chair of it was Peter Parker."

A fascinating alternate universe Spiderman.
posted by otherchaz at 9:32 PM on August 12, 2015


Halfway through each lesson the teacher would hold up a card with a silhouette on it and ask the class, "Which Pokemon is this?"
posted by fallingbadgers at 9:51 PM on August 12, 2015


w0mbat: "The US had thousands of US citizens who were bilingual in Japanese and English, people like my wife's grandparents. They could have recruited these people and sent some to the UK. Unfortunately they spent the war locked up in US interment camps in places like Heart Mountain, Wyoming."

Or they were recruited out of internment camps, or recruited from areas where there was no internment (remember, internment was not carried out in all US states) as Japanese teachers. But, you're right, they did not send them to the UK.
posted by Bugbread at 12:51 AM on August 13, 2015


> They only had enough time to teach prospective translators the words for things like "submarine" and "aircraft carrier," and never bothered with un-military parlance like the words for "you" or "me".

To be fair, there are no words for "you" or "me" as such in Japanese; to address other people and refer to yourself correctly require levels of social awareness and linguistic subtlety that would take far too much time away from the more immediately important stuff.
posted by languagehat at 7:03 AM on August 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


And the usual method of just teaching all the men to say "watashi" and then having a good laugh at their expense was probably inappropriate in this case
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:23 AM on August 13, 2015


One of my university teachers, Peter Laslett, did the six-month crash-course at Bletchley. When I asked him how he'd managed to learn Japanese in such a short time, he told me that before joining Bletchley, he'd been on the Murmansk convoys, and he knew that if he didn't pass the course, he'd be sent back there. The loss rate for ships on the Arctic convoys was higher than for any other Allied convoy route. "It seemed a good reason to learn Japanese."

The Bletchley course only covered written Japanese, but later in the war the RAF had to set up a new course in spoken Japanese, to train interpreters to translate the radio communications between Japanese pilots and their ground controllers. One of the Bletchley codebreakers, John Tiltman, gives an amusing description of the course, 'in which the students were bombarded incessantly with Japanese phonograph records ringing the changes on a very limited vocabulary':
I remember taking a U.S. Army Japanese interpreter, Col. Svensson, round the course. Stunned by the volume of sound in every room, Svensson mildly asked the Director whether all the students made the grade, and the reply he received was: "After the fifth week they're either carried away screaming or they're nipponified."
posted by verstegan at 1:53 PM on August 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


verstegan, that Tiltman reminiscence is so perfectly NSA:
Some time after returning to Bletchley I set to work on a large number of messages emanating from some unplaced station in the middle of Europe. Here it was clear from the indicators that the sender had tailed right round his additive table 5 times and it was [THREE BLANKED-OUT PAGES]
(Hey! Tiltman took a crack at the Voynich manuscript.)
posted by steef at 6:02 AM on August 14, 2015


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