Sunday, 11 December 2011

PR History - The Word That Launched 41 Kilotons

Kantarō Suzuki (Source: National Diet Library)
At the best of times, mistranslations are funny. The history of advertising is replete with examples of translation gone horribly and hilariously wrong, such as KFC's mistranslation of its classic slogan 'Finger Lickin' Good' into Chinese as "eat your fingers off" and Parker Pen's botched advertising campaign in Mexico which stated that its product "won't leak in your pocket and impregnate you." (Apparently nobody told them that the Spanish verb 'embarazar' doesn't mean the same thing as its English cognate.) However, mistranslations and cross-cultural misinterpretation can have disastrous consequences, as this classic anecdote in the history of public relations reveals.

Wartime Japanese Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki never had an easy go of it. The man very narrowly escaped assassination in the thwarted Young Officers' Mutiny of February 26, 1936, from which he would spend the rest of his life with a bullet lodged in him. After a long and tireless naval career he was kicked upstairs to the post of prime minister in April 1945, by which time the Allied forced had landed in Okinawa and the imperial capital was under siege by American B-29 bombers. He was 77 years old and appointed to replace Kuniaki Koiso, a barking mad ultranationalist who was determined to wage war until every single Japanese citizen lay dead.

The level of stress that Suzuki must have been dealing with in his short tenure as prime minister of Japan can only be imagined. It is therefore hardly surprising that when the Allied leaders issued the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945, which called for nothing less than Japan's 'unconditional surrender', the man was at a loss. His cabinet - and presumably the Japanese people at large - favoured as quick a surrender as possible. The top military brass, however, remained hostile to the notion of an 'unconditional' surrender, and with the civilian cabinet at the time serving essentially as a puppet of the military apparatus, Suzuki had no choice but to do his damnest to placate the imperial generals.

When President Truman decided to give Japan one last chance before unleashing the deadliest weapon ever devised on Japan, Prime Minister Suzuki was placed in an impossible situation. When asked by the military press for his response to the Potsdam Declaration, his response - which has since become notorious - was mokusatsu (黙殺). Mokusatsu can literally be translated as something like 'death by silence'. Within the context of a heated news conference, this response could be understood as "I don't have any comment at this time" or "I am maintaining silence" or any other such normal obfuscation. However, the Americans interpreted this as meaning that the prime minister considered the declaration to be beneath contempt. His response was reported in the Asahi Shimbun on July 28, 1945. Barely a week later, the city of Hiroshima was vapourized in a mushroom cloud, with the same fate befalling Nagasaki three days later.

In the decades following the end of the war, the mokusatsu debacle has been analyzed ad nauseum by historians. Even Japanese scholars are unsure of what Prime Minister Suzuki meant by this phrase in this context. Was he trying to appease the generals by seeming hawkish while remaining just vague enough to keep peace talks alive? Was he trying to send a veiled cry for help to the US Army translators (who most likely would have been nisei Japanese-Americans) by way of unorthodox phrasology atypical of a Japanese prime minister? Or was this simply a 'weasel word' devoid of meaning blurted out by a politician at the end of his rope? All are likely enough, but unfortunately we'll never know.


Makes you wonder about the conditions in which government communicators have to work in a state of war. How many PR practitioners are active in their profession in present-day Mogadishu? Probably not many.

For a look at a now-unclassified US military document on mokusatsu, read on.

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