How the UK found Japanese speakers in a hurry in WW2

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How the UK found Japanese speakers in a hurry in WW2

Postby iguanamon » Wed Aug 12, 2015 11:07 am

The 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacifc War in World War II is upon us and the BBC had this article today in the Magazine: How the UK found Japanese speakers in a hurry in WW2. If you like reading about history you may find this article a good read.

Apparently, pre-World War Two, Britain had little interest in Japan and not much of a trading relation. There was the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (which is still teaching degree students African and Oriental languages today) that had a small Japanese teaching staff of two people, a husband and wife team. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the British colonies in Southeast Asia, they had to ramp up quickly in order to train Japanese-speakers for the British military and it was decided that bright "sixth formers" (equivalent to American seniors in high school) would be trained at the SOAS in an 18 month course. An excerpt follows:

BBC wrote:The school's Japanese-teaching facilities when war broke out were rudimentary.

"Japanese was taught here," says Prof Ian Brown, who is writing a history of SOAS. "There were two teachers at the end of the 1930s. But classes for Japanese - classes for everything frankly - were rather small."

The truth was that learning exotic languages was not a priority for imperial Britain in the 1930s. "British investment in Japan was small, and there was no Japanese investment in Britain," says Sir Hugh Cortazzi, who learned his Japanese at SOAS and became Britain's ambassador to Tokyo in the 1980s. "And, of course, Japan had been cutting itself off from the West. But I think there was also an element of arrogance on the part of the British."

The shortage of Japanese speakers in 1942 was exacerbated by the disastrous start of Britain's war with Japan. Within weeks of the surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, which brought the US into the war, the Japanese had launched a successful invasion of Malaya, a British colony, and Britain's huge military base in Singapore had fallen.

Most of the few who had learnt Japanese at SOAS had, not surprisingly, taken jobs in East Asia. And with the fall of Singapore most had become prisoners of war.

So a desperate War Office decided to advertise scholarships for 18-month intensive courses for sixth-formers in Japanese, Chinese, Turkish and Persian (for who knew where the war might spread to next), to start in May 1942.
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Re: How the UK found Japanese speakers in a hurry in WW2

Postby kimchizzle » Wed Aug 12, 2015 3:05 pm

Quite an interesting article.

I'm a bit surprised there were no second or third generation Japanese-British citizens who had grown up bilingual, living in the UK at the time of WW2, as was the case with Japanese-Americans citizens already living in the US for several generations.. Perhaps I shouldn't be as surprised though since the US is just on the other side of the Pacific from Japan and Hawaii even closer. UK would have likely been more difficult to immigrate to logistically from East Asia at that time period.
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Re: How the UK found Japanese speakers in a hurry in WW2

Postby 1e4e6 » Wed Aug 12, 2015 7:15 pm

Having lived in probably the most multicultural city in the UK after London, I have seldom come across Japanese who have lived in the city for generations. In recent times, there are a lot of students, especially Japanese foreign exchange students and there are two big universities literally almost glued next to each other, but other than that, I usually see many Chinese though, as Manchester supposedly have the highest Chinese population in the UK.

The article talks about Chinese (I assume Mandarin?) being taught, but in fact the war was already underway in what was then, a close to failed state of China, divided up all over the place with the French/German/Brilish outpost of Shanghai, the British outpost of Hong Kong, the Portuguese outpost of Macão, and the Russian outpost of Harbin. The Japanese invaded China in 1931 and if I remember set up the puppet-state of Manchukuo, where, amongst other war crimes, set up Unit 731. But back then Mandarin was not established as everyone's language like after 01.10.1949.

Singapore and Malaya have a lot of languages, so I wonder if Malay and Fukien were taught too. Mandarin was not the language that most Chinese in Singapore spoke at home, but the Amoy dialect of Fújiàn Province (Fukien). And then there was Malay and Tamil, and various others.

But it is often said that the 1942 Fall of Singapore was single-handedly the worst British defeat in the centuries of history of the entire British Empire.
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