Shigeru Takabayashi, 85, is a living witness of the convoluted history of the English language in Japan around the end of the Pacific War.
In spring and summer 1945, the last months of the war, Takabayashi studied English — an enemy tongue ostracized in wartime Japan — at a branch of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in Hariojima, Nagasaki Prefecture, which is now part of the city of Sasebo.
Every week, he and his fellow cadets received four hours of English lessons, in which they were allowed to speak only English. The English teaching staff included three dozen Japanese teachers trained by Tadao Kimura, a second-generation Japanese-American from Seattle.
“It was because of Mr. Kimura that we could receive an advanced English education, although it was for less than six months,” Takabayashi said.
This appears to be a rare experience in the days when authorities restricted the use of English. Singers and other show business figures using English stage monikers were forced to convert to Japanese names. The Ferris Waei Jogakko, a girls high school in Kanagawa Prefecture, was renamed Yokohama Yamate Gakuin, while this newspaper replaced the word “Japan” and renamed itself The Nippon Times.
The naval academy’s class of 1945 had as many as 4,000 cadets. Haruo Erikawa, a 59-year-old professor at Wakayama University, says the intensive education at the academy toward the end of the war ended up helping develop “the brains necessary for the postwar recovery.”
In fact, English was not entirely banished from general school education. Fostering future leaders capable of speaking English was essential if Japan was to govern occupied territories, explained Erikawa, who also heads the Society for Historical Studies of English Teaching in Japan. “Many former middle schools, which represented an elite course, continued to teach English during the war.”
Japan’s defeat led to an about-face in the English language’s place in society as well as transformed the lives of the people.
“I was a boy with militarist thinking who believed it was natural to die for our country when applying for the naval academy,” Takabayashi recalled. With the end of the war, he said, what the Japanese people had previously believed in vanished.
Wartime English textbooks were met with harsh treatment, with pages showing the pictures of warships and other weapons torn out. Textbooks used at the naval academy were burned just days after the surrender, according to Masatsugu Abe, 85, who was a cadet mate of Takabayashi.
When Takabayashi returned to his home in Yokohama after the war, he started to mingle with American soldiers as a natural course of events. “Perhaps, it was the nature of Yokohama. I was very happy to be able to make myself understood,” he said, referring to his relationship with the Americans in a city known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Takabayashi was not the only person in his neighborhood to take to talking to the Americans. He saw a female grocery owner picking up colloquial English quickly. “She was doing it for her living. She was such a fast learner,” Takabayashi said.
Learning to speak English proved a boom of sorts. A 32-page English conversation manual published just a month after the end of the war in August 1945 became an instant hit, selling around 3.6 million copies by the end of the year. NHK also started airing an English conversation program only a month after the end of the war.
Takabayashi later went on to enroll in the University of Tokyo, and in 1953 he was given a chance to cross the Pacific to study at the University of Oregon on a Fulbright scholarship. Just before departure, however, he was forced to abandon his trip because of ill health.
“It was unfortunate, but I thought I could try again,” Takabayashi said, not knowing how things would eventually pan out.
After graduation, he worked at the Supreme Court and later moved to the Institute of Developing Economies, a semi-governmental research organization that he worked for until his retirement.
Recalling the dark days of the war and its aftermath, Takabayashi said, “That was an era when it was impossible to realize your dreams.”
However, he was not one to give up on his dream easily. In 2005, half a century after his aborted plan to attend the University of Oregon, he sent a letter to the university asking to be admitted as a temporary foreign student. The school agreed and a year later at age 76 he started an 18-month course.
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