Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941/ Star-Gazette photo

Turned to a life of Japanese scholarship

In the summer after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Howard Hibbett left Harvard University, where he was a sophomore, for the grounds of a former girls’ school outside of Washington, D.C., that was surrounded with triple rows of barbed wire.

He spent the next four years working there in a hastily constructed hangarlike building. Along with other Ivy League recruits, he worked to make sense of stacks of intercepted Japanese messages, equipped only with a Japanese dictionary and a pad of paper.

“And our feeble knowledge,” the Arlington resident adds with a wry laugh as he sits in his office at Harvard.

Hibbett, a trim 89-year-old, is now the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Japanese Literature, Emeritus. His translations of authors such as Jun'ichiro Tanizaki helped familiarize a generation of Americans to Japanese literature.

During World War II, however, the translations he worked on were top secret. As a member of the Army’s military intelligence team, he helped cryptanalysts decipher messages intercepted from Japan's diplomatic communications, and then translated them into English.

He had been recommended for the job by Edwin Reischauer, then a professor of Japanese at Harvard and later Ambassador to Japan. In the semester following the Pearl Harbor bombing, Hibbett was one of 60 students to enroll in Harvard’s first intensive Japanese class, and one of only 15 to finish it. 

It was to be the start of a lifetime of immersion in Japanese for Hibbett.

Most of his young coworkers, like him, were in the Army, but, he confesses with a laugh, “We were not very good soldiers.”

“We all lived in a barrack, and there were people from Columbia, Yale and Harvard in particular,” he explains. “We did have a drill every now and then. We were subjected to military discipline by our sergeants and captains, who were, I think, very disgusted with us.”

Americans of Japanese ancestry were largely prohibited from working on the war effort, so the government turned instead to an unlikely combination of middle-aged missionaries who had lived in Japan for years, and eager young language students.

Despite their academic prowess, most of Hibbett’s colleagues, like himself, had no conversational skills in Japanese. And because the messages were transmitted in the Roman alphabet, rather than Japanese characters, precious clues to the messages’ meaning were lost, leading to some garbled results.

One of Hibbett’s colleagues translated a message, for instance, that appeared to be a goldmine of names of generals and officers. But it turned out to be a disappointing list of machine tools, rather than military personnel. Another stumbled over a Japanese version of French term and assumed a message referred to a member of the French nobility (“Baron Dessai”), when it actually concerned a trial balloon (“ballon d’essai”).
“But I don’t think we made any calamitous errors that weren’t corrected by our supervisors,” he said.

Hibbett used the time to deepen his knowledge of the language, learning as many characters as he could by looking things up in the dictionary. On Wednesday afternoons, he and the other translators went to the Pentagon, where they met with higher-ups from military intelligence and were also treated to commercial Japanese films that were, says Hibbett, “presumably part of our training.”

The hard work of Hibbett’s unit paid off. In his memoirs, Reischauer writes that the diplomatic messages “yielded a wealth of material.” Messages to Tokyo from the Japanese Ambassador in Berlin, for example, gave the most accurate information about the results of Allied bombings in Germany. Hibbett remembers one message, in particular, from the Japanese ambassador to Moscow asking the Russians to intercede in a peace agreement.

In August 1945, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an abrupt end to the war.

“I suppose I was somewhat shocked like everyone else,” remembers Hibbett, “but I thought this would end the war and avoided the invasion of Japan.”

He finally made his first trip to Japan in 1950, after returning to Harvard to complete his bachelor’s degree and then a Ph.D. Although the war had ended five years earlier, Japan was still in a state of disrepair. He remembers going to a garden party held by the French embassy at the site of a villa of a very wealthy family. The garden was gorgeous, but the background was in ruins.

“I know that we could go to somebody’s house,” says Hibbett, “and over the wall there was just rubble wherever you looked.”

He didn’t go to Nagasaki, where the second atomic bomb was dropped, until many years later, and there were no traces of the war by then. He never went to Hiroshima.

After returning to Harvard in 1958 as a faculty member, he moved to Arlington in 1960. He and his wife bought a house on Pleasant Street, which was lined with beautiful elms at the time, he recalls.

Hibbett and his wife and three children have been to Japan many times over, sometimes staying for as long as a year and a half. Now he and his wife usually visit for two or three weeks at a time.

He estimates that he’s spent a total of more than 12 years in Japan.

“When you put it all together,” he says, “it’s really not much time.”