Reading the Mail of the Japanese Ambassador in Berlin
17 May 2016, London
Britain was woefully equipped in terms of Japanese language expertise in December 1941, in spite of efforts by SOAS to alert the government to the need to start training people to speak and read Japanese from 1939 onwards. Undergraduates and schoolboys with a talent for crossword puzzles, chess and languages were lured into emergency language courses at Bedford, Bletchley Park and SOAS and learnt a very particular kind of Japanese that was useful for the war effort.
Those who ended up in Bletchley Park ended up reading the despatches of Japanese diplomats in Europe, including those of the remarkable Oshima Hiroshi, long-serving ambassador in Berlin. His despatches were invaluable in the struggle with Nazi Germany but they also had a lot to say about the Soviet Union. Oshima died in 1975, not knowing that his mail had been read throughout the war.
Why did all this have to be kept secret so long? What happened to the young men and women who learnt Japanese during the war? And why were their teachers so positive about Japan?
Professor Peter Kornicki
Professor Peter Kornicki is Deputy Warden of Robinson College, Cambridge, and a Fellow of the British Academy
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