Asked what he’d do first if called upon to rule a nation Confucius replied, “I’d correct language.
If language isn’t correct
Then what is said is not what’s meant
And what ought to be done remains undone.
Morals and art deteriorate
And justice goes astray –
And if justice should disappear
Then people will stand about in helpless confusion.
So there must be no arbitrariness in what’s said.
It matters above everything.”

Asked to surrender in World War II
The Japanese used the word ‘mokusatsu’
In their response to an Allied ultimatum.
The Japanese word meant
‘We withhold comment – pending discussion’.
When their reply was sent to Washington
The crucial word was mistranslated:
Its correct meaning being changed for
`We are treating your message with contempt’.

The Americans claimed that their ultimatum had been rebuffed
So they were free to play with their new toys.
Two atomic bombs nicknamed ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’
Were then dropped upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A hundred and seventy-five thousand people
Either stood about in helpless confusion
Or were turned into radioactive dust.

Today ‘peace’ is mistranslated
And means a seething stalemate instead of calm;
‘Strength’ is mistranslated
And means paranoid force instead of right-minded confidence;
‘Defence’ is mistranslated
And means the compulsive accumulation of profitable weapons
Rather than the thoughtful exercise of skill;
‘Testing’ is mistranslated
And means the deadly detonation of a nuclear device Instead of a tentative experiment;
A ‘disarmament treaty’ is mistranslated
And means junking obsolete weapons because of economic restraints
Rather than abandoning technological violence;
‘First strike’ is mistranslated
And means last strike;
‘Security’ is mistranslated
And means danger;
‘War’ is mistranslated,
And we are invited to believe
That war means peace.


 Heathcote Williams







By Heathcote Williams

This entry was posted on in homepage and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mokusatsu

    1. Nice one Heathcote,
      Tony C

      Comment by Tony Coughlan on 2 November, 2013 at 8:34 am
    2. “Mokusatsu” does convey rejection with contempt. It seems that under the circumstances (late July 1945) the Japanese military’s decision to turn its back on the US demand for unconditional surrender was a tragic miscalculation–not one based on a misunderstood word: rather the word was taken exactly as intended, and it brought the down the whirlwind.

      Comment by Eric Berman on 14 June, 2018 at 1:19 am
    3. As an illusionist himself, Heathcote appreciated all language filtered through political communications (war being politics undisguised) doesn’t mean at all what it “says”. No lofty deconstruction, no sagely insight by Chomsky or snarky old con-artist wink from Burroughs is required. We all know, really.

      Comment by Jay Jones on 15 June, 2018 at 1:33 pm

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.