Readers of Commonplace will not be surprised to learn that one little mistranslation from one language to another can be embarrassing. Whether it is one misplaced letter when cheering General Douglas MacArthur, an incompetent interpreter for a US President, or slip of a tongue during an word of encouragement from a member of the royal family, one word or one letter out of place can result in the red cheeks of embarrassment for everyone involved.
Rarely has a mistranslation been as costly as the one that may have resulted in the death of over 150,000 people.
The date was July 26, 1945. Allied powers concluded their meetings in Potsdam, Germany by issuing a declaration, setting forth the terms under which Japan was to surrender. The declaration ended with the words, “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
Many within the government of Japan saw the inevitable. With the war in the European theater concluded, all of the power and might of the Allies was now focusing upon Japan. Quietly and without fanfare, diplomatic envoys were pursuing options for an honorable surrender that would have guaranteed the safety of Emperor Hirohito. These negotiations continued, despite no direct reference to the Emperor being made in the Potsdam demands.
With this as background, newspaper reporters pressed Japanese Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki to say something about Japan’s reaction to the ultimatum. Suzuki knew no formal decision had been reached. He replied to the reporters’ questions by saying he was “withholding comment.”
The word he used was mokusatsu (黙殺). The word has several possible meanings, ranging from “withholding comment” or “pausing to reflect on what has been discussed and what the next steps should be,” all the way to “treating with silent contempt,” and “cutting someone dead.”
Media agencies and translators interpreted Suzuki’s meaning to be that the government was responding to the demands “with silent contempt.” This only reinforced the views of those on the Allied side who believed Japan would never consider a diplomatic end to the war. Whatever Suzuki’s actual intention for his words was, we will never know. On July 31 President Harry S. Truman gave his approval to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, bringing an end to any possibility of ending World War II through any means other than unconditional surrender.