Mokusatsu Mistranslation, The Story Behind It

Story Behind the Mokusatsu Mistranslation
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Errors of Translation:

Language services are essential in every field of life, but they become even more valuable during wartime. Communication between different countries only becomes possible due to the efforts of linguistic experts. During wartime, communication is of the utmost value. The only way nations can effectively negotiate is if they have a way to communicate with each other. However, inexperienced translators can worsen matters between countries if hired for such an important job. Mistranslations have sometimes led to pretty serious consequences. During World War II, the Japanese suffered simply because of the mistranslation of Mokusatsu.

The Story Behind the Mokusatsu Mistranslation:

In the last year of World War II, the Japanese government was using its diplomatic ties with Moscow to come to a negotiated termination of hostilities. During the same time, the Allied forces issued the Potsdam Declaration. The leaders of the Allied powers,

President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, the Prime Minister of England, Sir Winston Churchill, and the President of China, Chiang Kai-shek, got together on July 26, 1945, and issued a statement demanding the Japanese forces’ surrender. The declaration was a request that stated clearly that if Japan did not surrender, it would have to face “prompt and utter destruction.”

The Japanese Army and war minister strongly opposed the declaration. The government and the military were not on the same page. But in an attempt to make things better, the foreign minister of Japan at that time, Tōgō Shigenori, gained the Cabinet’s consensus and decided to share the terms of the declaration with the public. A censored version of the command was shared with the Japanese people.

On the day the declaration was published in the newspapers, the prime minister of Japan, Suzuki Kantarō, addressed the public in a press conference and said the terms were similar to the earlier Allied proposals, which his government rejected. He further stated,

The government of Japan does not consider it to have any crucial value. We simply mokusatsu suru. Our only alternative is to be determined to continue our fight.”

In Japanese, mokusatsu means “ignore” or “treat with silent contempt.” To the Allied forces, it told that Prime Minister Suzuki and his government had outright rejected the Potsdam Declaration. As a result, American President Harry S. Truman decided to carry out the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The mistranslation of Prime Minister Suzuki’s words resulted in the death of more than 2 million people and the destruction of entire towns.

Mokusatsu Discussion

The Aftermath of the Bombings:

The American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the only instance in history when a nuclear weapon was used by one country against the other. The Pacific War and World War II ended six days after the bombing. Before that, the Soviet Union had also declared war on Japan. However, the unconditional surrender ended the war between Japan and the Allies. The Emperor of Japan, Hirohito, made a radio broadcast to accept the terms of the joint declaration issued by the Allies Powers and announced the surrender of Japan.

Japanese Language difficult to translate

The Mokusatsu Discussion:

Since the speech of Prime Minister Suzuki was mistranslated into English and forced New York to act in retaliation, language and political experts from Europe and Asia wondered what went wrong. Some think that Kantaro Suzuki knew that mokusatsu is an ambiguous word and decided to use it anyway. They believe that the worst incident in the history of Earth could have been avoided if Suzuki had been more apparent in his speech. If he had said that the Cabinet had not arrived at a decision, then the Allied would not have seen his speech as rejecting their terms.

Although the Japanese Empire, the military establishment, and war minister General Korechika Anami were against the idea of surrender, a solution could have been found with the help of Russia. But Mr. Suzuki made a mistake in his speech, which resulted in using nuclear force against his country. The students of translation studies often discuss the mokusatsu incident in their classes. No one can say if it was one of the catastrophic translation mistakes or an intentional misdirection by Mr. Suzuki. Some people also suggest that the naval intelligence of Allied forces knew precisely what the word mokusatsu meant. They decided to retaliate independently and not because of the worst translation mistake.

Some people think Japan got attacked because it was an Asian country, and the US would not have dropped bombs on Germany, Russia, or Italy. They believe that there was no translation mistake. But Japan’s failure to surrender immediately angered the White House. Others blame Mr. Suzuki Kantarō for not accepting the earlier declaration straight away. The Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima makes one forget about the latest proposals, political and translation mistakes, the Japanese Empire, and the Russians. It only makes one think of the people who died from the atomic bombings.

Is the Japanese Language challenging to translate?

After the bombings, translating the word mokusatsu caused much debate in the language circles. The speakers said that Japanese is very complex and cannot be accurately translated by non-natives. However, a native with a complete understanding of the Japanese language can provide accurate translations. This is why thousands of legal documents, contract documents, birth certificates, movies, etc., are accurately translated to and from Japanese daily. As long as qualified native experts are hired, we won’t make the worst translation mistakes.

Instead of blaming translation mistakes for what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we should focus on political science and international relations. The federal government should make attempts for every country involved in a conflict to arrive at a peaceful solution. We don’t need more Netflix miniseries or Hollywood movies to remind us how badly the world wars affected the general public. Whether it was the Russians who lost their lives or the Americans, humanity lost at the end of the day. It is essential to care about the security of your citizens. But it should not allow governments to attack other countries unjustly. A final decision should always be taken after conducting cabinet meetings and listening to public opinion.

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