LONDON – Tributes have been paid to a select group of British schoolboys who studied Japanese during World War II and later went on to build enduring ties between the two countries.
Dignitaries gathered at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies on Monday to recall the efforts of the 30 boys who were chosen by the British government to study at the school from May 1942.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Britain’s War Office realized that many of its finest Japanese speakers were being held captive in Japan. It set up a scholarship for 30 boys aged between 17 and 18 to undergo an intensive 18-month period of training in Japanese at SOAS.
The goal was for them to be trained up rapidly and then sent out to East Asia to carry out intelligence operations and postwar interrogations.
One of the individuals was Ronald Dore, now 91, who suffered an accident in basic training and was brought back to SOAS to teach Japanese rather than serve in the Far East.
He recalled the boys being enchanted by the mainly female Japanese language staff, who were the wives of Britons.
“We were taught rather well. We were a bunch of male teenagers and a certain rapport was created. (The teachers) were proud of their own culture and extremely self-confident,” said Dore, later a distinguished professor of Japanese sociology at SOAS.
“It was by osmosis that they transferred to us the respect they had for themselves and for the culture with which they had been brought up. Beyond a linguistic capacity, we acquired a certain empathy for Japanese people and its culture.”
The scholars were known as the “Dulwich Boys” because they boarded at Dulwich College in south London during their stay.
Many of them went on to play leading roles in Anglo-Japanese relations after the war and became prominent businessmen, academics and diplomats. One of those was the late Peter Parker, a former chairman of British Rail.
“We owe so much to the Dulwich Boys, who helped bring our bilateral relationship from its postwar nadir to the heights of today,” said Keiichi Hayashi, Japan’s ambassador to Britain.
As well as the Dulwich Boys, SOAS also provided Japanese courses for those already enrolled in the forces, as well as a small group of women who went on to become code breakers at Britain’s top secret intelligence facility at Bletchley Park.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British ambassador to Japan and a contributor to the opinion pages of The Japan Times, was taught Japanese by Dore in 1943.
“We were taught as well as was possible at that time bearing in mind that they had no materials on which to start. Textbooks had to be prepared, vocabularies worked out,” Cortazzi said.
Founded in 1916, SOAS is a college within the University of London. A series of events this year are marking the institution’s 100th anniversary.
Before World War II, very few people in Britain studied Japanese and many experts credit the war with boosting Britain’s capacity in the language and forming the foundation for strong bilateral ties.