In July of 1945 the United States prepared to test the first atomic bomb in a dusty corner of New Mexico.
Amongst the small cadre of scientists who were aware of the Trinity Project – even the US Vice President wasn’t in on it – some were concerned that a chain reaction of split atoms in the upper atmosphere could ripple through the sky and destroy the planet. This clumsy steel ball from the 40′s, hanging on a steel tower 100 feet off the ground, sparked a dark guessing game: How much destruction would come pouring out of that tower once the bomb dropped?
The US didn’t make haste. Even before the New Mexico test, another bomb was sailing across the Pacific, destined for Hiroshima. If the planet’s atmosphere survived the test in New Mexico, then the USA was ready to localize the phenomenon in two Western Japanese port towns: Kitakyushu and Hiroshima. Rain over Kitakyushu moved the second bomb to Nagasaki – spawning the phrase “Kokura Luck,” a reference to the Kitakyushu city center.
That first bomb finally detonated 100 feet above what is now the Hiroshima World Peace Museum and Park. Today, the museum shows the effect of nuclear weapons through emotional depictions and artifacts; tells of skin being burned into clothing, of children walking through ashen cities with radiation burns. It is a very compelling set of reasons to oppose nuclear warfare. The gift shop sells Barack Obama T-shirts, postcards thanking him for his stance on the global reduction of nuclear stockpiles.
But there’s a single sentence that seems a bit dodgy. The museum asserts that when the Allies presented terms of surrender, the Japanese government was contemplating surrender and had yet to reply when Hiroshima was bombed.
This was never in my history books, but then not much is. The typical story among Americans is that Japan had refused to surrender and was bombed out of necessity; only the bomb could have halted a frenzy of suicidal nationalism. Japan asserts that it was planning to surrender but was bombed anyway.
Turns out, there was a miscommunication.
Truman, Stalin, Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek made the Postdam Declaration in July of 1945. The declaration was quite firm:
“We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
For good measure, the Allies dropped leaflets explaining the terms of surrender in Japanese and broadcast them over the radio. Everyone was aware of the terms, and everyone knew the world was waiting for an answer.
In Tokyo, Premier Suzuki was questioned by reporters about Japan’s response. Behind the scenes the military refused “unconditional surrender” on principal, while some believed that Japan could make a land invasion so bloody that the allies would negotiate an armistice on Japan’s terms rather than demand total surrender. Estimates were being drawn: 10,000 aircraft and pilots could be trained for last-ditch kamikaze missions that would have wiped out 400 US transport boats; citizens were being armed with every kind of spare weapon, from swords to farming tools. One high-school girl was handed a leather-crafting awl and told to kill at least a single American soldier with it. The goal was to force the military into killing every man from 15 to 70 and every woman from 17 to 65, who were now elevated from mere citizens into the “Civilian Defense Force” of Japan.
Others, to their credit, saw that this would be madness, and advocated full surrender. The Emperor would eventually agree. But none of them were aware that the US wasn’t planning a land invasion. None of them could have imagined the alternative.
With this all occurring behind the scenes, Suzuki gave a boilerplate answer: “No comment.”
The Japanese verb for withholding comment is mokusatsu(suru), which you could better understand culturally as, “We’ll wait in silence until we can speak with wisdom.” The problem with this answer is that it has a number of connotations, including one that could best be understood as the more dismissive, “We will wait in silence until we can speak about something wise,” more in line with “This doesn’t even merit a response.” Japanese language is vague; the source of the wisdom here is supposed to be implied. Is the wisdom coming from reasoned discussion? Or are you refusing to answer a stupid question?
Tokyo reporters could have gone either way. They decided that the Premier said the Potsdam Declaration was “not worthy of discussion.” Coming from the Premier of the Japanese Government, the Allies saw this as an official refusal of terms. It seemed insane given the state of Japan, but so, too, were kamikaze pilots and an army of teenage girls armed with leather crafting tools. One could easily assume that the entire nation would destroy itself rather than surrender – that was, after all, what it had said for the entire duration of the war.
In Japan, the view is that Suzuki said they were thinking about it.
Hiroshima was bombed within 10 days.
Reading The Air
Perhaps we could say the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the result of a translation error, but the translators understood the word and knew the full range of meanings it carried. The problem was inherent to the Japanese language, where words are secondary to context. In this situation, the context seemed clear: Japan had trained soldiers to kill themselves rather than surrender, and was now being asked to surrender. If we “read the air,” – my favorite Japanese phrase for the impossible task of understanding situations intuitively and not actually communicating – we might assume that Japan would be insulted and reject the proposal, even if it meant “prompt and utter destruction.”
This to me seems less like a flaw in translation than a flaw of the Japanese language. Causing offense means something here, so the language has evolved to tease out consensus and not make clear statements. Catherine Travis, a linguist, did a survey in Japan that found 70 percent of Japanese saw “the ability to act on guesses” as tied with kindness among the most important personal trait.
This is fine and good for communicating with neighbors or the local baker, but it is absolutely useless internationally, where the burden lies in communicating clearly and “acting on guesses” can end with the annihilation of cities.
Japan is quite poor at globalized tasks because it doesn’t communicate well. Of course, the global economy was designed to keep Japan in line. When Japan was outpacing everyone else economically, the US teamed up with other nations and agreed to a series of financial measures to weaken the dollar against the yen. Japan agreed, inadvertently cheering the actions of its gravediggers. Perhaps it is no coincidence that once the assertively communicative countries started cooperating economically, Japan entered a period of stagnation and eventual decline.
Since then, Japan continues to be vague. In its weird, muddled face-saving measures after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, to its response to international pressures against whaling, the problem has always been that whatever Japan’s policy is, it will articulate it vaguely, leaving everyone wondering just what, exactly, it wants. With so little patience for this style of communication, Japan often ends up with nothing – or with whatever its allies decide it needs.
Cultures and Tiger Warnings
In 1968, a National Security Agency report on the incident remarked rather glibly on Suzuki’s role in the incident, saying, essentially, that Suzuki could have actually communicated instead of being all weird about it, that even information like “We’re thinking about it” or “We have the proposal under review” could have saved the country from it’s morbid distinction as the only country ever engaged in nuclear war.
I’ve read that language evolved as an extension of our nervous system – our primate selves used language to warn our friends about threats they couldn’t see. We shout “Look out for that tiger!” and we’ve become a part of a connected structure. Language connects us into a common front against the threats of the world. We give each other access to our sensations, revealing more of the pleasures and simplifying the difficulties of the world.
In a groundbreaking 1991 study, psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama found that the way “self” is constructed in American culture and Japanese culture is radically different. In American culture, the “self” is always in isolation from others, while in Japan the “self” is always placed among others. If you imagine this in the context of the tiger example, you might see that the American consciousness is that we are looking out for tigers, separate from our friend, while the Japanese consciousness would be that both of you – and everyone around you – is looking out for tigers.
The difference may seem subtle, but consider how it changes the way we communicate: The Japanese way is indirect because you and your friend are aware of the same bits of the environment and understand what is around you both. Or the American way, where you focus on one thing, tigers, while your friend focuses on another, such as finding wild berries.
The American berry-hunting party would have to shout to draw attention to a specific aspect of the environment that it is responsible for monitoring – in this case, tigers and berries. The Japanese berry hunters, sharing tasks, don’t have to communicate as explicitly. (Notably, studies have shown that Americans are very good at reporting details of a single sphere of focus – such as a goldfish in a tank – whereas Japanese people could answer fewer questions about the goldfish but could discuss the entirety of the aquarium in greater detail).
Born In The USA
Realizing how much of my world view has been culturally crafted is an intense experience. I listened to punk music. I was a vegan. I didn’t watch television. I was a snotty hipster, in fact, for much of my 20s, and I have always considered myself “outside” of mainstream America, only to realize, abroad, just how much has seeped in.
Directness and openness are good examples. They’re often annoying to other Americans, but always annoying to everyone else. Being away and then coming back, I was frequently shocked by bold declarations of opinions and emotions by Americans (myself included). After years in Japan, any show of self-expression comes off as entitled, self-important, or recklessly emotional. Non-Americans strike me as aloof.
I am conditioned to seek finality in things that are ambiguous; I find myself wishing for rapid resolutions through acts of extreme honesty. This is, of course, not universal to Americans, but it is rooted in a series of very American beliefs in the value of self-expression, “letting it all out,” and valuing efficiency (even if it’s at the price of deep, thoughtful reasoning).
Amber Waves of Grain
American culture, like any other culture, evolved from a feedback cycle of behavior and environments. The variety of behaviors (coming from hundreds of countries, religions, etc) and environments (arid deserts, freezing tundras, tropical marshes) meant that our culture requires an ability to be understood across different contexts.
It is no wonder that a prevailing American stereotype is that we’re the loudest group at a bar: We’ve been raised to be heard, and clearly. Our desires are rarely misunderstood, because we don’t leave a lot to the imagination.
But these practices evolved to serve a purpose, and so this negative side has a corresponding strength: Americans are well-prepared to thrive in a global culture. Our diversity requires a constant balancing act between our own directness and accommodation to the directness of others. What we lack in subtlety we make up for in tolerance.
But coming from that culture, guessing whether someone is withholding comment until they have made a decision, or withholding comment because I’ve insulted them (likely through my directness), is maddening. I find vagueness and undefined situations enraging. People from every other country seem to have a tolerance for uncertainty that far exceeds my own capacity. When someone implies that I should “read the air,” I feel like they should just explain themselves. Refusing to communicate with words feels arbitrarily difficult to my American mind.
This is where I find a cultural divide: I read about Suzuki, as an American, and I’m infuriated by the arrogance of his leisurely stroll through the act of communicating. Japan, however, believes that America jumped to irrational conclusions and was quick to take devastating actions on too little information. Both sides say that the other should have intuitively understood what was taking place. America, for its part, could have made some attempt at verifying its own conclusions before engaging in the destruction of human life on an unrivaled scale.
But that’s the tragedy. Suzuki was withholding and inarticulate, and the US was quick to jump to the worst conclusion. That’s the limit of international – and interpersonal – communication. You never know what something means to the person saying it, or, in this case, to the person who isn’t.
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