In July of 1945, President Truman met with Churchill (later Clement Attlee) and Stalin in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin, Germany. The discussion concerned peace settlements at the end of the war in Europe. Demarcation of boundaries, occupation of Austria, and concerns about Japan were among the talks taking place. On July 26 the conference sent a strong ultimatum to Japan demanding unconditional surrender. In Japan, reporters questioned the Premier, Kantaro Suzuki, concerning the Japanese government’s stance on the conference’s ultimatum. His response was the word “Mokusatsu,” by which he meant “no comment.”

His choice of words would change history and become known by many linguists as “the worst translation mistake in history.” The English translation of the word carries a different meaning; “With silent contempt.” The unfortunate communication error was not taken well by those at Potsdam, especially Americans. Ten days later, “the bomb” devastated the city of Hiroshima. Would it have made a difference had the communication been heard differently? It may or may not, but it shows how simple it is for miscommunication to quickly turn into unwanted circumstances.  

When I was a teenager, I sat in the audience as a missionary related a time that his communication became an embarrassing moment in his ministry. He and his wife had just arrived in a particular mission field when she became ill and unable to attend the Sunday morning service. As the missionary began his lesson, he told the congregation that his wife was “under the weather” and thus could not attend. A “chuckle” went through the assembly, which he thought odd, until after the service when he heard why. In their culture, the words used for “under the weather” communicated to the congregation that his wife was home “drunk.” 

Have you ever wondered why so many versions of the Bible exist? One problem in translation is taking an old language and translating it as closely as possible to the meaning in different languages. Sometimes, like “Mokusatsu,” words can have different meanings, so the translator must do his best to translate by figuring out the context in which the words occur. This can be difficult with varying languages since what I say in “American English” may come across as entirely different in another language or, in some cases, even in our conversations. Words like bat, minute, lie, second, project, and row are simple words to us but have different meanings in our language. In America, when we say football, we think of the oblong ball with two teams trying to score touchdowns. In Europe, football refers to the round black and white soccer ball used to score goals. It’s easy to miscommunicate what is said and how we interpret it.

Unfortunately, failed communications often end in hurt feelings, arguments, and divisions, not because of the words but due to a lack of understanding and failure to clarify from either side. People jump to conclusions too easily. On the other hand, we often fail to use our words carefully, causing miscommunication. From the speaker’s standpoint, we need to learn to be careful what we say and how we share our words. We need to be aware if what we say could be taken wrongly. As listeners, we should learn to do just that, listen. Too often, when we hear something we don’t like, we start thinking of how we will respond instead of continuing to listen. James shares his thoughts in his letter, “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” James 1:19-20 (NASB) 

Jesus over and over tells us to “love one another.” He speaks about forgiveness and mending relationships. Paul writes how we should show peace, kindness, love, and self-control. God’s word stresses how each of us is responsible for developing encouraging and close relationships. How we get along depends on each person communicating with words to bring us together, not separate and destroy.

“Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” Colossians 4:6 (NASB)

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the LORD and turn away from evil.” Proverbs 3:5-7 (NASB)

Remember, it’s best to make “Mokusatsu” instead of having  “Mokusatsu” when there is a communication breakdown!

Danny Minton is an Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ

One comment

  • As a composition teacher, I stressed the importance of diction (word choice) to my students. We would be so much better off if we thought more carefully about the nuances of language.

    Liked by 1 person

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