- Zineb Outnouna
THE MOST TRAGIC TRANSLATION MISTAKE IN HISTORY!
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
On July 26th, 1945 the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, the Prime Minister of England, Sir Winston Churchill, and the President of China, Chiang Kai-shek, gathered in Potsdam, Germany to discuss the end of War II and to issue a document that will outline the terms of Japan’s surrender. This document became known as the Potsdam Declaration. The document carried a strong and harsh message to Japan; If Japan did not agree to the terms it will face “prompt and utter destruction”.
Once the Office of War Information in Washington issued the Potsdam Proclamation, newspapers around the globe published the document, and now all eyes are on Japan, anxiously waiting to hear the response of Japan’s Prime Minister, Kantarō Suzuki.
Because he was under pressure from the media and his cabinet had not made a formal decision yet, the Prime Minister Suzuki decided not to issue any official statement but addressed the public in a press conference in which he stated that the terms of Potsdam Conference were similar to the Cairo proposal, which was previously rejected by his government. In expressing this idea, the Prime Minister Suzuki used the word “Mokusatsu” which is derived from the Japanese word “Silence”.
The word “Mokusatsu” can convey many meanings. The Japanese word literally translates as “kill with silence”. The word can also mean: “remain in a wise and masterly inactivity”, "withholding comment", "let me withhold comments for now", or "let's ignore it".
The way the media reported the Prime Minister’s reply sealed the fate of millions of Japanese. It was reported as: “"treat with silent contempt.", "not worthy of comment.". It did not help that many Japanese newspaper indirectly rejected the terms of the conference and considered the proposal as a “Laughable Matter,”.
On July 30th , the New York Times front page announced, “Japan Officially Turns Down Allied Surrender Ultimatum.” Furious, the allies felt that they had no choice but to act on their threat. On August 6th, 1945, the B-29 carried and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Over 200,000 people immediately died, and many more suffered long term disastrous effects because of the mistranslation of one word.