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.