Wartime Work Forged Love of Japanese Culture

Bryan M. Battey shown aboard a ship in the 1940s.
Bryan M. Battey shown aboard a ship in the 1940s. (Family Photos)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Barely two years out of Sidwell Friends School, Bryan M. Battey was sent to Colorado to learn to speak and read Japanese. He was one of a select group of college students asked to undertake an intensive program during World War II to learn the languages of the nation's enemies.

Mr. Battey had been valedictorian of the class of 1942 at Sidwell Friends and seemed to do everything well. He was class president four years in a row, editor of the school literary magazine, and he could play half a dozen musical instruments at a near-professional level. While in high school, he was invited to go on the road as a guitarist with trumpeter Harry James.

Instead, Mr. Battey went to Dartmouth College, where after two years he was admitted to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society -- which is how he found himself sitting in the mess hall of a Navy Officer Candidate School in New York in October 1944.

With the outcome of the war still in doubt, top students were recruited to study Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Indonesian and Burmese at the Navy language school at the University of Colorado. For reasons he never knew, Mr. Battey was chosen for the intensive 14-month program in Japanese. Because the Navy's requirements were so rigorous, Dartmouth awarded Mr. Battey a degree, even though he never returned to campus. His training kept him off the front lines.

"We were tested regularly," he wrote in a private memoir. "Motivation was high. Failure meant Okinawa, or Iwo Jima."

Mr. Battey's early studies led to a lifelong passion for the Japanese language and culture, which he retained long after his career in the Foreign Service ended. By the time he died May 6 in Asheville, N.C., of congestive heart failure at age 84, Mr. Battey had taught the Japanese language to thousands of U.S. residents, from preschoolers to working professionals.

"He really fell in love with the culture," said his son Robert Battey. "He enjoyed kanji, or written Japanese, and took joy in explaining the language."

In 1946, Mr. Battey's newly acquired linguistic skills brought him back to Washington, where he spent a year translating industrial documents. He then wrote advertising copy and moonlighted as a jazz musician until his former Navy commander invited him to join a new federal agency called the Central Intelligence Group. In 1947, it was renamed the Central Intelligence Agency.

Mr. Battey never fully described his work at the CIA, but his family recalls that he learned Russian and Georgian and translated Joseph Stalin's intercepted phone calls. By 1952, Mr. Battey had moved on to the U.S. Information Agency, and for five years during the 1950s he directed the American Cultural Center in Tokyo.

With his fluency in Japanese, his interest in the arts and his outgoing manner, he flourished as something of a U.S. cultural impresario. He brought American artists and scholars to Japan a mere decade after the end of World War II, bridging what had once seemed an insuperable gap between the countries.

"His unique, multi-layered personality endeared him to all, and he made countless friends for his country," retired ambassador William Sherman, a onetime colleague of Mr. Battey's, wrote in an e-mail.

While he was in Washington from 1958 to 1967, Mr. Battey worked for Edward R. Murrow, who was director of the U.S. Information Agency from 1961 to 1964. Mr. Battey had later postings to Saigon and Tokyo before retiring in 1974.

In 1973, Mr. Battey settled in Arlington County, where he began to concentrate on his other early passion: music. Entirely self-taught, he mastered the piano, guitar, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, viola and accordion and had an encyclopedic memory for songs. He often performed at Washington area hotels, restaurants and weddings.

"He could not walk by a piano, whether in our house or in somebody else's or in a hotel, without playing it," said his son Robert, a cellist and contributor of music reviews to The Washington Post. "If there was a keyboard visible, he would sit down and start playing."

Mr. Battey and his first wife, dance critic Jean Battey Lewis, divorced in the late 1960s but remained "the model of post-divorce cordiality and cooperation," in their son's words. She is the mother of his four children.

After a brief second marriage, Mr. Battey and his third wife, singer Torrey Baker, ran a vocal studio in Arlington -- he provided the piano accompaniment -- until her death in 1982. He then lived in Florida and Pennsylvania before settling in Asheville about 15 years ago with his fourth wife, Jean Horton Battey.

Until the end of his life, Mr. Battey continued to play jazz, write poetry and teach Japanese, never giving up hope that music and language could bring the world closer.

"He could relate to people of any age," his son Robert said. "He was all about communication, and the way it happened, whether it was kanji or language or music."

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