Mokusatsu: the most tragic word in history?

John Kerry, left, and Kantaro Suzuki

A few words can have huge, unintended consequences when it comes to war, as John Kerry has now discovered and the Japanese did to the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives almost 70 years ago.

She won’t have realised it at the time, but CBS journalist Margaret Brennan unwittingly changed the course of history when she asked the American secretary of state a seemingly routine question earlier this week.

Could President Assad do anything to avert US-led military strikes?

"Sure,” Kerry replied casually. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”

“Turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting (of it), but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."

Or so he thought. Within hours, Russia had seized on Kerry’s somewhat flippant comments to offer a politically convenient ‘other way’ and the result is the confused process of ‘accidental diplomacy’ now being discussed.

Whether the volte-face in the US’ approach to Syria is a welcome one depends on which side of the fence you sit, but what is undeniable is that Kerry had never intended it to turn out this way.

The slip will be viewed as a reminder that, in a fractious world with a frantic 24-hour news cycle, global politicians must be on guard at all times. But this is certainly not the first time war and peace has hinged upon a misjudged turn of phrase.

Indeed, one of the most brutal civilian massacres of all time may well have been averted but for one word: ‘mokusatsu’.

The word that changed the world

In the final months of World War II, with Germany having already surrendered unconditionally and overall victory looking assured, the allied forces of the United States, Britain and China presented Japan with an ultimatum outlining the terms of surrender.

An allied correspondent examines the landscape of destruction at HiroshimaAP

About one month after the dropping of the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, an allied correspondent examines the landscape of destruction at Hiroshima

The statement, which came to be known as the Potsdam Declaration, was handed over on July 26, 1945 and imposed harsh terms, closing with a warning that the “alternative for Japan would be prompt and utter destruction”.

Although it wasn’t disclosed to the Japanese people, foreign radio broadcasts and leaflets dropped from the air by American bombers meant that before long most of the public was aware of the ultimatum.

The following day, the country’s prime minister, Kantarō Suzuki, was asked in a Tokyo press conference what his response to the allies’ proposals would be. His reply, “mokusatsu”, is one that irrevocably changed the course of his country’s history.

The phrase, partly derived from the word for ‘silence’, carries several meanings – one being to ‘treat with silent contempt’ but another to imply a more passive inactivity, as if to ‘wait and see’.

The meaning behind the response has been debated. Many think that, under pressure from military factions of the cabinet (who were strongly opposed to surrender), Suzuki merely intended to use the phrase in the passive sense, equivalent to a modern politician saying ‘no comment’.

Whatever his intention, it was reported internationally in one way or another that the Japanese government deemed the allies’ ultimatum as ‘unworthy of a response’. Ten days later, on August 6, the first atomic bomb fell on Japan – directly killing an estimated 80,000 people, and leading to the deaths of up to 60,000 more through injury and the effects of radiation. A second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki three days later, is thought to have killed almost 74,000 more.