"I was a soldier of the Emperor" - the story of James B. Harris

This page is a synopsis in progress of the book Boku Wa Nihon-Hei Datta1 The book describes how James B. Harris, born a British citizen, came to serve in the Japanese army in World War II.

James Bernard Harris (1916-2004) was a well-known broadcaster and author on the English language in Japan, authoring such books as "The Wonder Book of English Grammar",2 and appearing on the radio in English-language education shows such as English for a million people.3 He translated horror writer Edogawa Rampo's stories as Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination in 1956.4

Harris was born to an English father and Japanese mother in Kobe on 4 September 1916. His father was a Far East correspondant for the Times newspaper. Just after he was born, they moved to Yokohama. After the Kanto earthquake of 1923, his family moved to America, but came back to Japan when Harris was twelve.

Harris went to an English-language school. His father wanted him to be a journalist. Harris could speak Japanese, but never learnt to read or write it. Harris's father died suddenly in 1933, when Harris was sixteen. Harris took Japanese citizenship under the name Hideo Hirayanagi5 so that he and his mother could continue to live together in Japan.

After he graduated from Saint Joseph's College in Yokohama, he followed his father into journalism, working for first the Japan Advertiser and then the Japan Times newspapers. He was mentored at the Japan Advertiser by Burton Crane, an American journalist. At first Crane would tear Harris's articles to pieces without saying a word. Harris eventually won Crane over, and Crane recommended him as Japan correspondent for Variety when Crane left Japan.

Before the war, as tensions increased, Harris was repeatedly arrested by the "Kempeitai", the Japanese security police, as a suspected spy. A fellow journalist died in custody. The Kempeitai said he'd killed himself by jumping from a window, but his body had over a hundred needle marks. The Kempeitai said these were from medical treatment after he'd jumped out of the window.

Once the war started, Harris was first imprisoned, then detained in an internment camp. He was to be sent to the UK as part of an exchange of people, including the Japanese ambassador from the USA. When it was realized that Harris was a Japanese citizen, he was released, but then conscripted. He passed the medical exam for the Japanese military, despite looking to the Japanese like a foreigner.

Harris thought that, because he was a native English speaker but could only speak, and not read, Japanese, he'd be an interpreter. Instead he joined the army as an ordinary soldier. He trained for one year. Harris could not read Japanese, and the Japanese military banned foreign loanwords. Every military item had its own "military" name.

Harris completed his training in China. Despite being a private, he was invited to speak with the commanding officer of his base. The commanding officer told him that he thought Japan had no chance of winning a war against the United States.

Harris was involved in a number of incidents. Once he accidentally urinated on a non-commissioned officer in the dark, and the non-commissioned officer then beat Harris with a pistol.

Harris initially admired a Lieutenant Maeda, an apparently honourable soldier who refused to steal food from the Chinese, but would insist on finding the owner of produce used by the army and trying to pay them using the Japanese military currency. But Harris was horrified when Maeda executed a Chinese prisoner by decapitating him with a sword. Harris became terrified of Lieutenant Maeda. Another soldier who witnessed the killing killed himself with his army rifle. The army did not acknowledge the death as suicide, but claimed he was killed in action and gave him a full military funeral. At the funeral, Harris was surprised to see Lieutenant Maeda crying.

In the section "Baptism of Fire",6 Harris describes the first time he was attacked by the enemy. His battalion was ambushed by the Chinese. A man just behind Harris was shot. But Harris's sergeant, in full view of the enemy, stood up, pulled out a packet of cigarettes, and started smoking. Harris panicked, dug a hole, and then stuck his head into it, rather than firing back at the Chinese, and was then railed upon as a coward.

He includes a description of fighting off an attack of poorly-armed Chinese soldiers from a fort. The Chinese timed their attack to coincide with the Japanese new year celebrations, when the soldiers would be drunk and their guard would be lowered. Harris stood on the top of a wall of the fort, bayoneting the Chinese as they tried to scale the fort with ladders. Eventually Harris's force was able to beat off the Chinese.

After the war, Harris was lucky enough to be returned to Japan and was glad the war was over. As he returned home, he was surprised how much the Chinese hated him and the other Japanese.

To be continued


  1. 僕は日本兵だった (Boku wa Nihonhei Datta); by J・Bハリス (J. B. Harisu); published by Obunsha; ISBN 4-01-071051-9; date of publication: July 1986, a translation of Harris's unpublished English manuscript titled I was a soldier of the emperor.
  2. The Wonder Book of English Grammar, one of Harris's books on English for junior high school students.
  3. Hyakuman-Nin No Eigo
  4. Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo, translated by James B. Harris, published by Tuttle.
  5. kanji: 平柳秀夫, Hirayanagi Hideo in Japanese
  6. 火の洗礼

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