Eavesdropping on the Emperor

Interrogators and Codebreakers in Britain's War With Japan

May 2021 9781787384729 376pp,
44pp b&w illus
Available as an eBook
EU Customers


When Japanese signals were decoded at Bletchley Park, who translated them into English? When Japanese soldiers were taken as prisoners of war, who interrogated them? When Japanese maps and plans were captured on the battlefield, who deciphered them for Britain? 

When Great Britain found itself at war with Japan in December 1941, there was a linguistic battle to be fought—but Britain was hopelessly unprepared. Eavesdropping on the Emperor traces the men and women with a talent for languages who were put on crash courses in Japanese, and unfolds the history of their war. Some were sent with their new skills to India; others to Mauritius, where there was a secret radio intercept station; or to Australia, where they worked with Australian and American codebreakers. 

 Translating the despatches of the Japanese ambassador in Berlin after his conversations with Hitler; retrieving filthy but valuable documents from the battlefield in Burma; monitoring Japanese airwaves to warn of air-raids—Britain depended on these forgotten ‘war heroes’. The accuracy of their translations was a matter of life or death, and they rose to the challenge. Based on declassified archives and interviews with the few survivors, this fascinating, globe-trotting book tells their stories.



‘Fascinating. Peter Kornicki has produced a brilliantly researched account of British intelligence operations in the Far East during the Second World War, featuring a host of intriguing characters from codebreakers at Bletchley Park to interrogators operating across South-East Asia.’ — Michael Smith, author of The Emperor’s Codes: Bletchley Park’s Role in the Breaking of Japan’s Secret Ciphers

‘A detailed and enjoyable account of how Britain overcame provincial attitudes and limited vision in order to train specialists in Japanese at a time of total war. Never again should we underestimate the importance of languages in a complex, dangerous and interconnected world.’ — Aaron William Moore, Handa Chair of Japanese–Chinese Relations, University of Edinburgh, and author of Bombing the City: Civilian Accounts of the Air War in Britain and Japan, 1939–1945

‘A fascinating story of the men and women who provided military intelligence in Britain’s war with Japan. The most comprehensive “connecting-the-dots” presentation of the backgrounds, recruitment and wartime activities of these linguists. Original, ambitious and engaging in style—a great read.’ — Kayoko Takeda, Professor of Translation and Interpreting Studies, College of Intercultural Communication, Rikkyo University




Peter Kornicki is Emeritus Professor of Japanese at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of the British Academy. The son of a Polish WWII fighter pilot, he was educated at Oxford and has taught at the University of Tasmania and Kyoto University. He is the author of many books on Japanese history.

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