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Mokusatsu Mistranslation, The Story Behind It

Mokusatsu Mistranslation, The Story Behind It
Story Behind the Mokusatsu Mistranslation
(Last Updated On: October 15, 2020)

Errors of Translation:

Language services are important 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. But if inexperienced translators are hired for such an important job, they can make matters worse between countries. Mistranslations have sometimes led to pretty serious consequences. During World War II, the Japanese people had to suffer simply because of the mistranslation of the word 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 that demanded the surrender of the Japanese forces. The declaration was an ultimatum 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 declaration was shared with the Japanese people.

On the day when 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 were rejected by his government. He further stated,

The government of Japan does not consider it having any crucial value. We simply mokusatsu suru. The only alternative for us is to be determined to continue our fight to the end.”

In Japanese, the word mokusatsu means “ignore” or “treat with silent contempt”. To the Allied forces, it meant 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 is the only instance in history when a nuclear weapon was used by one country against the other. The end of the Pacific War, and of World War II, came six days after the bombing. Before that, the Soviet Union had also declared war on Japan. But the unconditional surrender effectively 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 or Prime Minister Suzuki was mistranslated into English and forced New York to act in retaliation, it has made language and political experts from Europe and Asia wonder what went wrong. Some think that Kantaro Suzuki knew that mokusatsu is an ambiguous word and decided to use it anyway. They think that the worst incident in the history of Earth could have been avoided if Suzuki had been clearer in his speech. If he had said that the Cabinet has not arrived at a decision, then the Allied would not have seen his speech as a rejection of 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 the use of nuclear force against his country. The students of translation studies often discuss the mokusatsu incident in their classes. No one can say for certain 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 exactly what the word mokusatsu meant. They decided to retaliate on their own and not because of the worst translation mistake.

Some people think that 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, the Russians. It only makes one think of the human beings that lost their lives because of the atomic bombings.

Is the Japanese Language difficult to translate?

After the bombings, the translation of the word mokusatsu caused much debate in the language circles. The speakers of the language said that Japanese is very complex and cannot be accurately translated by nonnatives. But 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 every day. As long as qualified native experts are hired for the job, 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. Attempts should be made by the federal government of 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, at the end of the day, it was humanity that lost. It is important to care about the security of your citizens. But it should not allow governments to unjustly attack other countries. A final decision should always be taken after conducting cabinet meetings and listening to public opinion.

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