Wednesday, 12 August 2015

turning Japanese

Seventy years ago Japan surrendered after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This remains controversial. There are many historians and scholars (the late Norman Geras was one) who think that that act was a war crime, and many (Oliver Kamm is another) who think (as did and do a number of respected Japanese scholars) that the bombing was justified on the grounds that both American and Japanese casualties were thereby avoided. Well, we'll never know. Whatiffery helps no one. Norm and Oliver were/are in other ways part of the same strand of politics, what has been called the anti-totalitarian left, and that is where I locate myself too. I can strongly recommend Kamm's 2005 book "Anti-Totalitarianism", which is one of the early works in this canon. The different arguments they both put forward - was Hiroshima/Nagasaki the end of the Pacific war or the start of the Cold War? make endlessly fascinating reading.

The UK's role in what happened in Japan was rather minimal. There was little input from the UK during the ten years of US occupation of Japan. But, then as now, the UK's role in Allied intelligence gathering was a key one. So Japanese experts were needed as soon as Japan entered the war in 1941. And there were none. Just about no one in Britain could speak or understand Japanese, and Japanese studies had not been especially popular among intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by contrast with, for instance, Arabic studies, which remains highly popular to this day among the top mandarins of Whitehall and, until the welcome advent of Tony Blair, had a significant influence on UK policy in the Middle East under successive governments.

What was to be done? The men were at war, and the men who knew anything about East Asia or spoke any of its languages had gone to work in places like Singapore and Shanghai, and most of them were now prisoners of war. I know, thought the government, we'll get some boys (not girls, obviously) out of the schools and fast-track them in the Japanese language. They did just that (they did it with Turkish and Persian too, because, well, you never know which way certain cats will jump), and within a year or two they had their Japanese experts. Some of them went on to be academics in the field, and one of them went on to be chairman of British Rail. A great piece about all this in the BBC Magazine here. Thanks Neil for pointing it out to me.

What might be a surprise is that the fast-track programme for Japanese still exists, though not quite in the same way. I went through it myself in the late 1970s when I was working for British intelligence (sssh!) and they still couldn't find Japanese linguists in the UK. The programme however took place largely in Japan, which obviously in 1942 it did not, and that is where I spent my time in 1979 and 1980. At the time the British Embassy language school in Kamakura, Japan was shared with the then West German government, so for three British students there was one West German. Usually these students were diplomats near the begining of their careers, but exceptionally (I'm not sure this was ever done again) there were two students, me and a colleague from GCHQ, who had diplomatic cover for the duration of our studies. An interesting time. I was examined orally for the interpretership by the then Emperor's personal interpreter, and *modest cough* got the top mark that year.

the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kamakura

Sir Hugh Cortazzi, a former British ambassador to Japan, is writing a history of SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and this is what has apparently inspired the BBC to take a look at these matters in the piece linked to. I hope he also takes a little look at the links which certainly existed at one time, and may still do for all I know, between SOAS and British intelligence. While the schoolboys referred to above were being fast-tracked in 1942 or thereabouts, SOAS was not using its Bloomsbury building where it still is today, but premises above St. James's Park Tube station. Those premises used to be called Palace Chambers (you can still see the faded sign if you look carefully, I went past there not that long ago) and were used by GCHQ for some of its activities. I have worked there myself.

I fled GCHQ in 1984 when they banned the unions, and joined the BBC World Service. I worked from time to time at the BBC Japanese Service, closed down in the 1990s, which was one of the few Japan-related organisations not headed by a graduate of that fast-track service. Its head was John Newman, who had acquired his Japanese by being a judo champion and studying judo there, and by being coach to the UK Olympic judo team in Tokyo in 1964. I always thought John was regarded with faint suspicion by the establishment fellows. John Newman died in 1993, aged only 57.

Tendrils of connection. Would make a film, the story of the above.

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