The Japanese Art of Silence
By Matthew Coslett
On December 15, 2014
At first look, the Japanese word mokusatsu seems to be pretty simple. The word is a combination of two kanji: the moku- (黙) is found in words like 黙る meaning ‘to be silent’; combined with -satsu 殺, the kanji found in words like 殺人 (A killer). In short, it means to kill something by ignoring or remaining silent about it.
Of course, silence can mean a lot of things to different people. Whereas some political groups use silence as a means of protest; a Zen priest uses it as a way of displaying peaceful contemplation. Because of this, the Denshi Jisho website lists a range of meanings for the word from ‘treat with silent contempt’ all the way to ‘withholding comment’.
It is the multiple possibilities offered by silence that make mokusatsu such a useful term for politicians and protestors. For this reason, either the word or the action are commonly used answers to difficult questions. After all, why risk incriminating yourself or saying something stupid when everyone interprets silence in their own way?
When former president Truman bemoaned the use of intentionally vague ‘weasel words’, the late politician’s ideas apply perfectly to mokusatsu. The Japanese themselves often use the word haragei (腹芸) for this kind of speak: where it is not the words themselves, but how you say them that communicates all the meaning.
One of famous uses of this word by politicians was during WWII when the Japanese Prime Minister used it as an answer to the Potsdam Declaration. For him, the reply of ‘mokusatsu’ was an attempt to keep everyone happy. The militarists who were a huge problem at the time could take the harshest meaning and imagine a strong Prime Minister contemptibly brushing aside the foreign bully boys; while the more peace-loving politicians could assume that the statement indicated that surrender wasn’t off the cards.
Unfortunately, the Allies hadn’t asked for a cleverly-considered, ambiguous answer that tried to appease everyone, they wanted ‘the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces’. “There were no tongue-twisting double meanings for Truman and Churchill,” Historian Stephen Walker explains in his book Shockwave, “In a single ambiguous phrase Suzuki (The Japanese Prime Minister) had sealed the fate of the nation.”
In these more peaceful times, the first time most foreign people come across mokusatsu is in contract negotiations. You think you have made a reasonable suggestion, then suddenly there is an ominous silence in the room. Have you made a mistake? Offended someone? Suddenly you feel desperate to fill the quiet void with some words. In fact, that is exactly what the negotiator is waiting for as this form of mokusatsu is designed to show polite disagreement and a desire to not comment on something until the problem goes away or solves itself.
The cultural writer Boye Lafayette De Mente recommends that business people faced with this ultimate form of passive aggression should ‘make use of the break to refer to notes, hold private discussions with your own colleagues, and so on. It also pays to introduce your own time gaps, and have control of the ball.’
‘Many translators hesitate to admit publicly that they can’t give a precise equivalent for an ambiguous text. They feel that saying that a word can have two or more equally possible meanings is a sign of their inadequacy.’ An unclassified document from the NSA explaining the concept of mokusatsu concludes. Words like these illustrate the point that assuming foreign languages will have a simple one-to-one translation into English is always likely to cause trouble.
Instead, it becomes important to except that trying to accept that some Japanese cultural words require us to think in a ‘Japanese way’. By adopting some Zen-like patience and being willing to allow a bit of silence into our lives, we can actually go beyond words and experience Japanese culture.