History / Warfare

The Ghosts of Horrors Past: Mokusatsu

Sixty-nine years ago today the Soviet Union declared war, joining the American & British versus Japanese combat already in progress.  Taken completely by surprise, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) was sent reeling from Mongolia to Manchuria.  Worse for the IJA, the U.S. Navy had trained Russian soldiers over the summer of 1945 to employ American landing craft at Cold Bay, Alaska and after receiving USN amphibious equipment through Lend/Lease the Red Army took advantage and conducted landings on the Kuril and Sakhalin Islands in addition to northern Korea.

Supposedly this could all have been avoided had one word not been mistranslated:

In July of 1945 allied leaders meeting in Potsdam submitted a stiffly-worded declaration of surrender terms and waited anxiously· for the Japanese reply.  The terms had included a statement to the effect that any negative answer would invite “prompt and utter destruction.”  Truman, Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang  Kai-Shek stated that they hoped that Japan would agree to surrender unconditionally and prevent devastation of the Japanese homeland and that they patiently awaited Japan’s answer.
Reporters in Tokyo questioned Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki about his government’s reaction to the Potsdam Declaration.  Since no formal decision had been reached at the time, Suzuki, falling back on the politician’s old standby answer to reporters, replied that he was withholding comment.  He used the Japanese word mokusatsu, derived from the word for “silence.”
Mokusatsu, unfortunately, has multiple meanings:
mokusatsu…v. take no notice of; treat (anything) with silent contempt; ignore [by keeping silence]; remain in a wise and masterly inactivity.
-Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary, p.1129.
To the NSA, the “silent contempt” definition infuriated American commanders and directly led to a cataclysm:
Some years ago I recall hearing a statement known as “Murphy’s Law” which says that “If it can be misunderstood, it will be.”  Mokusatsu supplies adequate proof of that statement.  After all, if Kantaro Suzuki had said something specific like “I will have a statement after the cabinet meeting,” or “We have not reached any decision yet,” he could have avoided the problem of how to translate the ambiguous word mokusatsu and the two horrible consequences of its inauspicious translation: the atomic bombs and this essay.
Misunderstandings will happen but mokusatsu wasn’t one of them.  Derivative of silence?  The Japanese government did not respond at all to an ultimatum to surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction”…for two full weeks.  The Japanese did not respond after the Hiroshima bombing–only accepting the Potsdam Declaration the day after the Nagasaki bombing and the beginning of the wide-ranging Soviet invasion. 
Question: did the Japanese surrender in the face the nuclear hellfire…or due to the horrific prospect of an imminent Russian occupation?

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