The National Security Agency in the US declassified a document which points to what is likely to be the worst translation mistake in history. Or, at least, it involves the mistranslation with the most serious consequences in history. Although you can never know what would happened without this error, it is very likely that the sad fate of Hiroshima has been the result of a huge error in Japanese into English translation.

The story is as follows: in July 1945, the allied countries meeting in Potsdam submitted a harshly -worded declaration of surrender terms. After their terms were translated from English into Japanese, they waited anxiously for the Japanese reply from the then Japanese Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki. This ultimatum demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan. The terms included a statement to the effect that any negative answer from Japan would invite “prompt and utter destruction.”

Meanwhile, newspaper reporters pressed the Prime Minister Suzuki in Tokyo to say something about Japan’s decision. No formal decision had been reached and therefore Suzuki, falling back on the politician’s old standby answer to reporters, replied that he was “withholding comment”.  The Japanese Primer Minister stated he “refrained from comments at the moment.” Mokusatsu was the key word to express his idea, a word that can be interpreted in several different ways but that is derived from the Japanese term for “silence”. mokusatsu derives from the Japanese word silence

As can be seen from the dictionary entry, the word can have other quite different meanings from those intended by Suzuki but the Japanese to English translation conveyed just one meaning.

Media agencies and translators interpreted the word “treat with silent contempt” or “take into account” (to ignore), as the categorical rejection by the Prime Minister. The Americans understood that there would never be a diplomatic end to the war and were naturally annoyed by what they considered the arrogant tone used in the Japanese translation of the Prime Minister’s response. International news agencies reported to the world that in the eyes of the Japanese government the ultimatum was “not worthy of comment.”

Mokusatsu, a word that we could very well translate as “no comment” nowadays, or “let me withhold comments for now” was translated as “let’s ignore it”.

The atomic bomb was launched on Hiroshima 10 days later.  A translation error that killed more than 70,000 people instantaneously and some 100,000 as a result of the destruction and radiation. Whoever it was who decided to translate mokusatsu by the one meaning and didn’t add a note that the word might also mean nothing stronger than “to withhold comment” did a horrible disservice to the people who read his translation, people who knew no Japanese, people who would probably never see the original Japanese text and who would never know that there was an ambiguous word used.  Other points of view, however, point fingers at the Prime Minister himself for using such an ambiguous term.

A copy of the declassified document can be downloaded from the link to the American NSA. Some of our staff has fortunate to visit the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. We have also scanned and extracted the text so the declassified document remains available from our site in the future.




9 thoughts on “The worst translation mistake in history

  1. Malcolm X

    Not only there was a translation mistake, but a constant and deliberate effort to justify the dropping of the bomb.

    The translation part just played part on the media campaign. Even if justifying the throwing of the first bomb is very very very complicated. There was no reason for a second bomb in Nagasaki. And as the author of the article below points out, if the point was complete surrender, how come Japanese Emperor Hirohito was allowed to remain in power?

  2. K. Hamamoto

    The view in Japan is quite different to the predominant view of US military wisdom. People in the US are taught that the bombing saved many lives, but Japan was ready to surrender. They just did not know how: the emperor, the diet, the military, the population – which had been suffered Japanese militarism not like Europe, but quite undeservedly, too. Please refer to the Japanese version of what happened here:ポツダム宣言

    Congratulations on the post. I work for another translation company . You cover many interesting topics here.

  3. Hideaki Miura

    “Mokusatsu” has a meaning of “ignore” but having some nuance.
    In general this means “I heard of it but dare to keep silent to avoid to be involved in counterparty’s logic”.

    There are already many comments in the JP site about it.
    Anyway it’s a war when the power can kill people without punishment.
    Japan was stupid and responsible on it.
    It’s too political and complicated to explain.

    1. jorgekafkazar

      Miura-san: Yes, it’s too political. And it is complicated. I don’t believe that “ignore” was intended at all, but I suspect that an ambiguous reply was intended. Acceptable ambiguity is found elsewhere in Japanese tradition. But, most importantly, Hiroshima was not bombed until 10 days later, a very, very, very long time to “…dare to keep silent to avoid to be involved in counterparty’s logic.”

      Tragic in any case. Our countries have both moved on. The Emperor lived to a distinguished old age. My family buys only Japanese cars. We respect Japan and its people.

  4. Hideaki Miura

    The fact was that there were not dictatorship in Japan, unlike in Italy and Germany.
    There were : Emperor, Army, Cabinet, Paliament, Journalism and voices of people.
    However, under the Emperor system no one had enough power to be responsible, and it’s tragedy.
    In those circumstances, to be right or wrong, the strong opinion leads the atmosphere.
    And no one had no conscious of clear responsibility.

    My personal opinion is that this kind of trends still exist in Japanese society.
    Under emperor everybody is equal, which is a good point of this country, but always vague.
    And another aspect is the language. It influences much to the culture.

    English language is like bricks laying, too clear to express delicate matters.

  5. dougiequick

    While it is impossible for any real human being to not be saddened by losses of civilian life (at least! These events can not rightly be judged apart from anything and everything that transpired. The Japanese had their own codes of morality and honor which had they WON would have commanded respect of the losers …but the moment the tables turned everything shifted to the VICTOR dictating what IS and is not moral and honorable ….it remains even OUTSIDE the rightful place of US today to judge! It was Now NOT our own sons and daughters that fell victim! It was not OUR pain NOR was it the pain of Japanese living today…it was a WAR and one where the Japanese being CERTAIN they could prevail (I assume) arrogantly INSISTED on their OWN codes of morality ie NO RULES even though they DID supposedly agree to geneva convention….What I am saying is that they set their OWN selves up to be brutally dealt with by our grandparents and great grand parents ….people who suffered loss of children …..THEIR children NOT ours. We can sit here in an arm chair and try to second guess everything trying to see japan as a victim …but from the perspective of the victors who displayed MUCH greater moral control IMHO….Maybe Japan got off easy? Personally? Judging from the ways they DID treat nations under their thumb? The Us was SO fortunate to be OUT of Japan’s reach! Had Japan the chance? They very well may have created a situation SO BAD that we would not even have sued for peace until the entire country was a smoldering fallout dump stinking with corpses…. I wonder how some other countries would have voted what to do with them? There IS a lesson! “sow the wind? reap the whirlwind” Act with honor that ANYONE can see down the road! And then who knows? If things go wrong? MAYBE that honor will be remembered and honored again? It was STUPID for grandfathers and fathers NOT to think of their children? NOT to CONSIDER the ramifications on THEM if they lost! It seems to me Japan mocked us as weak in our morals….no doubt we WERE ….but not so weak and to kill SO MANY PEOPLE just to make a WELL EARNED point “payback is mother humper!” “oops! So sorry for your loss! Here lets dust you off! You can keep your emperor? Is that what you like? You are such bizarre people so strange to us ….give up and we will treat you as strangely as needed since you don’t think like us….whatever…your but is SO kicked now that its not even fun anymore ….just weird” Just please DO once in a while reflect on how lucky you ARE not to have gotten to our homeland ….with your morality? You would have woken a bloodthirsty MURDEROUS giant and franky? It is highly doubtful you would even exist today as AT ALL the same country….pretty sure you can take that to the bank! Lucked OUT

  6. gary grovesteen

    There sure is a lot of rewriting of history going on here. I guess that’s to be expected. But deep thinkers, please do the math. Tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers died rather than surrender. For them to kill themselves is fine. That’s their decision and it is their choice. But imagine the death toll if the mainland was invaded. It amazes me that the same America hating “historians” think they can second guess a decision made 70 years ago. Ask any sailor or marine on the US invasion force. The bombs saved their lives. Considering the war crimes Japan committed in China, I’d say things worked out just as they should have.

  7. Leigh

    I think it’s quite a stretch to say that the bombing was “very likely” to be due to mistranslation. The Japanese got the Potsdam declaration and they had plenty of time to respond. 10 days of silence and a statement saying they were pleading the fifth? After all their atrocities, they had no one to blame but themselves.


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