A Translation Mistake Led to the Atomic Bombing of Japan
In the aftermath of WWII, a myth grew that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was on her last legs, and about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have held water if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, both for the Japanese and for hundreds of millions of conquered subjects in Japanese occupied territory, that was not the case.
At war’s end Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure a barbaric occupation. Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and in the Pacific. Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and subjected them daily to brutal treatment. In short, every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. From that perspective, America and her allies were not mistaken in treating Japan as a formidable foe who was inflicting significant harm every day, and would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped.
So the Allies were not mistaken in dealing with Japan as a menace that needed putting down ASAP. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down, and led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.
It began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945. America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, along with her allies, issued a blunt statement calling for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces. It was an ultimatum, warning Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.
The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated at a press conference that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. It was a Japanese word which meant that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language – sometimes too subtle – in which the same word could convey a variety of meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning the translators gave President Harry Truman. 10 days later, the Enola Gay flew from Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.