LONDON - When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the British government realized it urgently needed more Japanese speakers and put out an appeal to the nation’s schools for talented linguists.
The War Office offered a scholarship for boys aged between 17 and 18 to undergo an intense 18-month period of training in Japanese at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
“The war with Japan created this amazing generation of people who fell in love with the country and, it could be argued, played some part in Japan’s rehabilitation after the Second World War,” said Ian Brown, an emeritus professor at SOAS who just finished writing a history of the institution, in a recent interview.
As the college prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in February, academics have been reflecting on the contribution these schoolboys made to Anglo-Japanese relations during their lives.
Thirty young men, known as the “Course Boys,” began their study in May 1942, and many later served in the intelligence corps and conducted postwar interrogations, with the War Office declaring they had been a “definite assistance” to the war effort.
They were taught by Frank Daniels and his Japanese wife, Otome, as well as by two Japanese journalists who had been released from internment.
Teaching materials were scarce due to the war and the boys recalled learning out-of-date grammar and vocabulary.
Mornings were spent at SOAS and in the afternoon the boys would do their normal studies at Dulwich College in south London, where they boarded.
Among the prominent “Course Boys” still alive today is Ronald Dore, who later went on to become a teacher of Japanese sociology at SOAS. In February, Dore and other alumni will return to the college to reflect on how Japanese has impacted their careers, and later in the year SOAS will stage a large exhibition charting its history.
Other well-known Course Boys included the late Peter Parker, a former chairman of British Rail, whose official report in the mid-1980s led to an expansion in the provision of difficult languages, like Japanese. He also worked for Mitsubishi and helped to organize a large Japanese festival in Britain in 1991.
Another, the late Guy de Moubray, had touchingly described how he learned Japanese at SOAS while his parents were imprisoned by the Japanese.
He was the first British soldier to step ashore in Singapore in 1945 when it was liberated and was reunited with his parents, whom he had not seen for six years.
The schoolboys were also joined by servicemen who arrived to learn how to either read or speak Japanese — but not both — as that was considered too difficult to learn in the short space of time that was needed.
Many of those who learned Japanese at SOAS during the war went on to become professors in the subject and helped to build up departments at Cambridge and other universities. Hugh Cortazzi, who became Britain’s ambassador to Japan in the 1980s and is a regular contributor to The Japan Times, is one example.
The college, which was founded in 1916 and is part of London University, has produced countless scholars who have gone on to play key roles in Anglo-Japanese relations.
When it opened, the School of Oriental Studies, as it was then known, was designed to give instruction in the language and culture of “Eastern people.”
However, historians believe that as early as the late 19th century, Japanese could have been studied at other London University colleges before those teachers were transferred to the new School of Oriental Studies.
From the outset, and for at least the next two decades, the demand to learn Japanese was low. The lecturers tended to be former diplomats who had lived in Japan for a long time, and the students were generally a mix of naval and diplomatic staff receiving language training.
“The intention of SOAS was to train people to run the British Empire,” said Brown.
Andrew Gerstle, a professor of Japanese studies at SOAS, notes that “from 1941, SOAS starts to become a fountainhead of knowledge and expertise on Japan.”
After 1960, new posts were established to research Japanese culture, anthropology, history, politics, sociology and economics.
Many scholars from SOAS have helped publish Japanese textbooks for foreigners and the college has accumulated an unrivaled collection of books on Japan, including classified documents taken from Japan’s European embassies after the war.
In the 1980s, as Japan emerged as an economic superpower, student demand soared and the level of interest has been maintained in the last two decades due to a fascination with Japanese culture, including manga and anime, said Gerstle.
But despite its centenary, SOAS, like other institutions, is facing financial challenges, especially since languages are relatively expensive to teach.
At the heart of the debate is whether the school should offer studies across a range of African and Asian languages or whether it is purely driven by a demand to provide degree-level teaching, Brown said.
“But hopefully over the last century, SOAS has contributed to a more sophisticated and sensitive understanding of Asia and Africa.”