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Edging Toward Japan: Could James Bond really speak fluent Japanese?

Japanese actress Mie Hama, who played the role of James Bond's wife in the movie, "You Only Live Twice." (Mainichi)

By Damian Flanagan

In the fifth James Bond film, "You Only Live Twice", 007 is dispatched to Japan. His boss M's secretary Moneypenny offers him a Japanese dictionary, but he immediately tosses it back saying, "You forget I took a first in Oriental Languages at Cambridge."

As someone who studied "Oriental Studies" (Japanese) at Cambridge, I've always considered it a source of pride that one of my "senpai" is none other than James Bond.

So, it comes as a slight disappointment that when you read the original novels, a rather different portrait of Bond emerges.

In Ian Fleming's novels, Bond, like Fleming himself, has been educated in Switzerland, is familiar with French and German, and feels most comfortable in the Atlantic-centric western world. Yet he knows nothing about Asia, and when he flies to Japan in "You Only Live Twice" is taking a leap into the complete unknown.

He has to be educated at great length on Japanese culture by "Dikko Henderson," MI6's man in Japan (based on Fleming's friend, spy and foreign correspondent, Richard Hughes). Written in 1963, the year before Fleming's death, the book is suffused with disillusionment and crisis both at the speed of the dismantling of the British Empire, the collapse of British prestige, and a sense of betrayal by the Americans, who are no longer sharing intelligence with the British.

In the 1967 film, scripted by Roald Dahl, and targeted for an American and international audience, the producers presumably wished to completely remove this sense of British tristesse and sniping at the Americans and so strip back Dikko Henderson to a mere cameo. Bond is now helping the Americans, rather than having to go to Japan because they are untrustworthy allies. They further needed Bond to be self-confident and independent in Japan, so when Moneypenny offers him a Japanese dictionary, he responds that he is already proficient.

Is this line meant to be taken seriously or ironically? (Most people seem to take it seriously, despite much of Connery's dialogue being obviously ironic). Certainly, Bond is shown to have never been to Japan before and is incapable of saying anything in Japanese other than the odd "sayonara" and "arigato."

Ian Fleming's Bond had an extraordinary sense of heroic, tragic resistance in the face of inevitable decline, personal and national. For the film, what we get instead is a positioning of Bond as a man of the future, urbane and knowledgeable throughout the undefined "Orient," for whom no place is truly "other."


(This is Part 24 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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