Kerim Friedman was curious about Emperor Hirohito’s famous remark, while announcing Japan’s surrender in 1945, “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” (in the usual translation). So he asked Matt of No-sword to explicate, and the results are enlightening:

…since the speech was in court Japanese (obscure even in 1945), exactly how to interpret this line is not clear. Some modern commentators do accept the “understatement” reading that Krugman uses. Some people claim that that passage…’means “things have definitely not gone well for us” (usage of 必ずしも, the key word corresponding to “not necessarily” in Krugman’s version, has changed slightly over the years), some say it means “[despite everyone’s efforts] things will not necessarily improve for us”.

I lean towards the latter interpretation myself. By the time Hirohito delivered this speech (via a recording broadcast over the radio), central Tokyo had already been burned to the ground; I don’t think that even the Japanese leadership of the time could seriously have written a speech that could call this “not necessarily to [our] advantage”. Implicitly admitting that things are going badly, and then adding “and, contrary to expectations, they are not likely to improve” seems much more likely.

I also seem to recall hearing that the original version of this line was something like “the war situation gets worse every day”, so it could just be the tortured result of a fierce edit war within the bureaucracy.

He also points out that “most Japanese in 1945 would have found the Emperor’s announcement very difficult to understand in the first place.”


  1. A Chinese translation in Chinese Wikipedia used the appropriate Classical Chinese to translate his speech. (If it were in late 19th Century it could even written in Kanbun first!)
    The “戰局必スシモ好轉セス世界ノ大勢亦我ニ利アラス” line is rendered as “而戰局並未好轉,世界大勢亦不利於我。” ((Despite your greatest efforts,) The war has not turned for the better, and the general trends of the world have not been advantageous to us either.) I guess that would be the most neutral interpretation a la Matt’s.

  2. Note: I am on vacation and this computer does allow me to write in Asian fonts. The Chinese Wikipedia translation avoids the issue of dealing with the “necessarily”, glossing over the “kanarazushimo” of the Japanese rescript which I feel very comfortable in translating “necessarily.” The whole phrase consists of the Chinese character “bi” = “necessary” read in Japanese “kanarazu” plus the Japanese ending “shimo” = “though” and the Chinese bound form “haochuan” [sp? my Pinyin is weak] = “turnout well/ turn for the better” plus the Japanese verb ending “sezu” = “without doing”. So it looks to me like “without necessarily turning out better” or “has not necessarily turned out better”. So I don’t find fault with the usual interpretation, but I caveat all of this with the note that I am first and foremost a Korean translator who has studied a lot of Literary Japanese and Classical Chinese.

  3. Thank you for this entry. I have read for years that the Emperor’s comments were in a language simply not comprehensible to most Japanese and this highlights the many levels of speech found in this language.

  4. Thanks for the link, LH!
    Doc Rock, you sum the structure up well (although I have doubts about simply glossing “shimo” as “though”), so I’ll use this language-happy forum to respond in detail. The ambiguity arises from (1) the possibility that “sezu” could refer to future events, and (2) the fact that in “kanarazu shimo” could also mean “definitely”, “without exception” in historical usage — e.g. in the Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki (early 1800s), the line “kanarazu shimo jinjō ni yotte kōdō wo wasuru bekarazu”, “be sure never to forget the correct path due to emotion”. I think this usage had died out but 1945, but then the speech was written in an intentionally old-fashioned way… (3) even in modern usage “kanarazu shimo” is tricky to translate, e.g. it sometimes means “not always” (“Despite your efforts, the changes in the war situation [that arise every day] are not always to our advantage”). I have seen all of these possibilities invoked in modern Japanese renditions of the speech. Given what had actually happened to Japan at the time, I still lean towards a less eyebrow-raising interpretation.
    Of course there are also renditions into modern Japanese that are closer to your understanding (and the standard English). Really what is needed is close analysis of imperial _usage_ in the period, rather than naive parsing of the language at face value, ignoring its context. Nice blog, by the way!

  5. I like the idea of using Classical Chinese to translate. (Now if only I’d studied Classical Chinese…)

  6. Naive parsing notwithstanding, I’d add what I’ve told students and journeyman translators these last forty years: communication in language is an unwritten contract. The communicator and the receiver have a tacit agreement in which the receiver will process the communication as accurately as the communicator’s adherence to standards in the communication universe permit, allowing for lapses in attention, distractions, etc., on the part of members of the audience.
    There is in any communication which lacks redundancy and strict adherence to the conventions of that communication universe, the possibility of misapprehension.
    In another words, the possibility of multiple interpretations always exist. As in Seami’s view of the “flower of the Nooh,” each listener brings a Gestalt of experiences that makes his/her apprehension of the performance unique.
    So what I’m saying is in our model for understanding this communication, like all communications, one point is the communicator’s intention–another key point is how it will be appprehended by the average, contemporary, intended recipient. Other points on the continuum of understanding are, necessarily, also possible based on a multiplicity of factors.

  7. When this was first posted I was in the middle of “Behind Japan’s Surrender” by Lester Brooks (1968) which is a very detailed account of the maneuverings of Japan’s leadership in the final week or so of the war. I’ve now reached the part where the speech (officially an “Imperial rescript”) is being drafted by Histatsune Sakomizu, chief cabinet minister and a leader of the peace faction. Brooks’s account confirms that there was indeed a “fierce edit war within the bureaucracy:”
    “Sakomizu passed around copies of the draft to the cabinet ministers and it was open season on the language, expressions, terminology, even the cadence of the message.
    “The first axe fell when War Minister [Korechicka] Anami read the phrase ‘the war situation is getting worse day by day.’ This, he insisted, had to go. It was a slur on the fighting men of Japan and did not accurately reflect their strong resistance and offensive actions on the China fronts and in the islands. No, he would not stand for any such phrase as this.
    “[Navy minister Admiral Mitsumasa] Yonai spoke up, taking the opposite view. ‘We should never change this part. Absolutely not!’
    “The cabinet secretary offered a weak substitute, with the help of other ministers. The wording they devised (which rings absolutely false in the final rescript) was ‘the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.’ Anami endorse this. Yonai objected violently. However, the prime minister [Admiral Baron Kantaro Suzuki], still afraid that Anami might hand in his resignation and bring the whole house of cards down, sided with the war minister and agreed that the ambiguous second phrase should be used.”

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