Mokusatsu: One word, different meanings and the A-bomb

On May 7, 1945, Germany officially surrenders to the Allies. World War II was over in Europe.

But Allied forces were still in war with Japan in the Pacific.

In July, Allied leaders gather in Potsdam, Germany, to discuss peace settlements.

U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and President Chiang Kai-shek, all agree that Japan should be given the opportunity to end World War II.

So they draft a declaration of surrender terms.

The terms were brutal. And clearly stated that any negative answer would invite "prompt and utter destruction." Truman, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-Shek hoped Japan would agree to surrender unconditionally. This would prevent war in Japanese soil.

Japan's response could determine how World War II would end. So Allied leaders waited patiently for Japan's reply.

When Japanese reporters in Tokyo questioned Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki what was Japan’s reply to the Potsdam Declaration, he replied, "Mokusatsu".

At the time, no formal decision had been made by Japan's Government. That's why Suzuki used the Japanese word "Mokusatsu". Because it meant that he was witholding comment.

But Japanese is a complex language. The same words can have entirely different meanings depending on the context. For instance, Mokusatsu is derived from two kanji characters: 黙 (moku "silence") and 殺 (satsu "killing"). And it can mean anything from, "I can't comment anything right now" to "I don't care".

So here's when things went batshit crazy.

International news agencies translated Suzuki's reply as, "Not worthy of comment".

US officials were furious. And 10 days later a dramatic decision was made. USA dropped the Atomic bomb in Heroshima. More than 100,000 people died.

When translating marketing copy, avoid catastrophic translation mistakes. Always take into account the context and cultural differences. Otherwise, you risk alienating or offending your audience.

Your pal,

Miguel Ferreira
Founder & Chief Copywriter, Teardwn + Nishi

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