Communicating war memory across languages

Almost seventy-five years after the end of the Second World War, competing memories of Japanese colonial and military actions in the first half of the twentieth century remain unresolved between Japan and its neighbouring countries, South Korea and China. In recent years, South Korea in particular has been most vocal in challenging the Japanese government’s representation of its wartime misdeeds. Disagreement over the responsibility and compensation for wartime forced labourers (choyoko) and ‘comfort women’ (ianfu)1 has escalated since late 2018 owing to developments in South Korea, such as the high court rulings against Japanese companies and the government’s decision to dissolve a Japanese-funded ‘comfort women’ foundation. Along with the controversial military radar lock-on incident,2 remarks by the Speaker of the South Korean National Assembly in February and March 2019 calling the Japanese Emperor ‘the son of the main culprit of war crimes’ and seeking his apology over the issue of ‘comfort women’ further aggravated the already heightened diplomatic tension between Japan and South Korea.

The contestation of historical memories among East Asian nations and within Japan has attracted increased attention from a range of scholars since the 1980s, propelled by a series of high-profile regional disputes over such issues as Japanese history textbooks with revisionist views, Japanese prime ministers’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine,3 and forcible recruitment of ‘comfort women’ and wartime workers.4 In the large body of literature on contested war memories of the Japanese past, however, little attention has been paid to how these are communicated across different languages. The fact that contesting or negotiating war memories often involves translation in bilateral and international settings has been largely ignored. Effective transmission of one’s memory is vital in order to garner wider recognition, sympathy and support and to become a ‘winner’ of memory politics as the owner of the most prevailing memory. Although it is not directly connected with war memory, the recent ‘translation battle’ between Japan and South Korea concerning the abovementioned radar incident is a telling story of the essential role translation plays in a state’s effort to prevail in international disputes. Each side kept increasing the number of subtitle languages for its respective video of the incident, up to eight: Japanese, English, Korean, Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish and Russian. Translation is indeed an integral part of international politics that can contribute to enhancing and legitimizing a given party’s position. Translation is also important for a state to communicate discussion in the international arena to its domestic audience.

In this article, I will illustrate how translation can be used to circumvent complications of memory politics through four examples in which the Japanese government used translation strategically in addressing contested war memories. To analyse how the Japanese government communicates its war memory across different languages, I draw on the functionalist approach and the notion of translation as rewriting developed within Translation Studies. The functionalist approach in Translation Studies, or Skopos (from the Greek for ‘purpose’) Theory, was advanced by Hans Vermeer and other German scholars. It regards translation as a social activity used to fulfil the purpose of a given communicative event. In other words, the way a translation is carried out is determined by its intended function in the target culture. This means that a given source text can be translated in a number of different ways depending on its purpose. The other theoretical framework I will refer to is the notion of translation as a form of rewriting, advocated by André Lefevere. In this theory, translation is viewed as a new text produced in line with the ideology and poetics of the target culture for a new audience. Lefevere also introduced ‘patronage’ in connection with power as a constraining element in the production of translation. Paying attention to the purpose of the translation and the ideological and political expectation of its patron and audience, I will examine how the Japanese government articulated its war memory through translation in four cases.

‘Feel sorry’ and ‘apologies’

The first example concerns the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s remark in Japanese on ‘comfort women’ and how it was translated into English by his interpreter during a press event with US President George W. Bush in the United States in 2007.5 After laying out some background of Abe’s prior comments on ‘comfort women’ and the particular context of this event, I examine what appears to be a discrepancy between the source speech and the interpreter’s rendition.


The issue of ‘comfort women’ was brought to the fore in the early 1990s, triggered by the coming-forward of former ‘comfort women’ in South Korea and their class action lawsuit against the Japanese government. In 1993, the Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a statement (the Kono Statement), acknowledging the Japanese military’s involvement in the establishment and management of the ‘comfort stations’ and recruitment of ‘comfort women’, which took place ‘generally against their will through coaxing, coercion, etc.’. The Statement also extended ‘sincere apologies and remorse’ to all ‘comfort women’.6 The Japanese government has issued a series of apologies over ‘comfort women’ since then, but their sincerity has been brought into question every time these ‘apologies’ were contradicted by some politician’s remarks and actions.7

In 1997, the inclusion of ‘comfort women’ in history textbooks and the revelation of allegedly problematic investigations8 that led to the Kono Statement drew harsh criticism from a group of nationalist lawmakers in Japan. They started calling for a review of the Kono Statement. As one of the leaders of this group, Shinzo Abe stated that no document had turned up proving the Japanese military’s use of coercion in the recruitment of ‘comfort women’. In 2001, as a senior cabinet member, Abe reportedly pressured the national broadcasting company to tone down the content of a documentary on the Japanese military’s responsibility for ‘comfort women’.9

Backed by his nationalistic supporters, Abe became prime minister in 2006. Contrary to the concerns of his opponents, Abe underscored his commitment to the Kono Statement, which irked his conservative base. In January 2007, a member of the US House of Representatives introduced a resolution that called for Japan to formally acknowledge, apologize and accept responsibility for ‘comfort women’. In March, Abe reiterated that, although he would uphold the Kono Statement, there was no evidence to support that the Japanese military used coercion to recruit ‘comfort women’ in a narrow sense of the word, that the resolution proposed in the House of Representatives was based on a misunderstanding of the facts and that he would not apologize even if the resolution was passed. This position drew intense backlash from Japan’s neighbouring countries as well as Western media and government leaders.

‘Double-talk’ through translation?

In the midst of the political storm created by his own remarks on ‘comfort women’, Prime Minister Abe arrived in the United States for talks with President Bush on 27 April 2007. During the Q&A session of a joint press event, Bush and Abe were asked about the ‘comfort women’ issue. Here is Abe’s response followed by my literal translation:

自分は辛酸をなめられた元慰安婦の方々に、人間として、また総理として心から同情するとともに、そうした極めて苦しい状況におかれたことについて申し訳ないという気持ちでいっぱい (moshiwakenai to iu kimochi de ippai) である、・・・と述べた。10

I said, as a human being, and as Prime Minister, I have heartfelt sympathy towards former ‘comfort women’ who had severe hardships; at the same time, I am filled with sorry feelings about them having been placed in such extremely difficult conditions.

The interpreter’s rendition was, ‘I do have deep-hearted sympathies that my people [who] had to serve as comfort women, were placed in extreme hardships, and had to suffer that sacrifice; and that I, as Prime Minister of Japan, expressed my apologies, and also expressed my apologies for the fact that they were placed in that sort of circumstance.’11

‘I … expressed my apologies’ in the interpreter’s rendition presumably corresponds to moshiwakenai kimochi de ippai, which I have translated as ‘filled with sorry feelings’. Risa Kashima, a translator and translation researcher, examined dictionary meanings of moshiwakenai and ‘apology’ with attention to cultural differences of apologia in Japanese and English, and conducted an experiment with translators to see how they would translate moshiwakenai. She concluded that the translators predominantly translated moshiwakenai as ‘I am/feel sorry’ but ‘apology’ would also be acceptable. Interestingly, her experiment also revealed that the translators back-translated ‘apology’ into Japanese as owabi or shazai, and never as moshiwakenai. Incidentally, owabi had been used in most of the previous apology statements by Japanese prime ministers. Abe could have followed his predecessors and used the word owabi, but he did not.

Abe was aware that his source speech would be heard or read by a Japanese audience. He did not want to apologize explicitly, perhaps out of his own principles but also to avoid upsetting his conservative base. On the other hand, the rendition by the interpreter was meant for international audiences, including members of the US House about to discuss the proposed resolution on ‘comfort women’. To ‘apologize’ was politically tactical to avoid fuelling criticism against Japan and passing of the resolution. This can be viewed as an example of a translation having a different purpose from that of the source text or of the translation rewriting the source text to cater to the ideology or expectations of the target audience.12

Given the significance of the term ‘my apologies’, I found it highly unlikely that this word choice was the interpreter’s prerogative. The journalist Hidetoshi Kaneko holds a similar view. He argues that the ‘comfort women’ controversy was contained for the time being by Abe using an ambiguous wording – moshiwakenai – and having the interpreter convert it to an unambiguous English word, ‘apologies’. Kaneko speculates that this kind of spin would not have been at the interpreter’s discretion and that this deliberate translation choice was pre-coordinated by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in order to repair the strain in the Japan–US relationship, and which must have been accepted by Abe, no matter how grudgingly.

Kashima informs us, though, that the interpreter revealed in response to her inquiry that he was never directed by the MOFA and it was his on-the-fly choice to use ‘my apologies’.13 Even if this was indeed the case, it seems that Abe and the Japanese government accepted their interpreter’s choice of words, as they never tried to clarify or correct the English transcript posted on the White House website.

Who did the ‘human trafficking’?

The second example concerns a Japanese term, jinshin baibai, that Prime Minister Abe started using in connection with ‘comfort women’ in 2015. Abe employed the term for the first time publicly in his interview with the Washington Post in March 2015 (Ignatius). During his visit to the United States in the following month, he mentioned jinshin baibai again at Harvard University and at a press conference. On all three occasions, jinshin baibai was translated into English as ‘human trafficking’. Here, I examine Abe’s remark with consecutive interpretation at Harvard.14


Abe stepped down from the premiership for health reasons in 2007 but made a comeback as Prime Minister in 2012. Concern about his revisionist inclination persisted due to his actions since then, such as visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, forming a panel to re-examine the Kono Statement, seeking a revision in a UN report concerning ‘comfort women’ and requesting a US publisher to change references to ‘comfort women’ in its history textbook.

Anticipating worldwide attention to Abe’s statement at the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in August 2015, the Japanese government carefully prepared Abe’s visit to the United States in April, including his comments on war memories, in coordination with their American counterparts.15 On 27 March, prior to his visit to the United States, the Washington Post published an interview with Abe. In it he referred to ‘comfort women’ as victims of human trafficking. A few days later, in response to a parliamentary inquiry, Abe confirmed that he had used the term jinshin baibai during the interview.

Pre-translating ‘human trafficking’?

On 27 April 2015, Abe gave an address at Harvard University. During the Q&A session, a student in the audience asked about the ‘comfort women’ issue. Abe responded as follows.

Abe: 慰安婦問題については人身売買 (jinshin baibai) の犠牲となって筆舌に尽くしがたい思いをされた方々のことを思うと今でも私は胸が痛みます。

The interpreter’s rendition: ‘When it comes to the comfort women issue, my heart aches when I think about those people who were victimized by human trafficking and who were subject to immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description.’

He gave a similar remark during a press conference with President Barack Obama the following day. His reference to ‘human trafficking’ was welcomed as ‘a positive message’ by the US government (Yomiuri Shimbun) as it was consistent with the American discourse that regards ‘comfort women’ as ‘one of the largest human trafficking’ incidents in history (US House of Representatives Resolution 121). There are a couple of problems, however, with the way the term ‘human trafficking’ was used. First, it is not clear who did the human trafficking to which Abe refers. He almost sounds like a bystander extending his sympathy to women victimized by evil individuals, rather than a representative of the nation that was responsible for the wrongdoing. And, more importantly, the corresponding term, jinshin baibai (literally, ‘human bodies selling and buying’) in the source speech, has a connotation of poor individuals selling their family members to dealers in commercial transactions and is not normally associated with state involvement. In contrast, ‘human trafficking’ in English is understood to entail a broader meaning that includes coercive and organized illicit activity.

Some Japanese and Korean media also commented on nuanced differences between the terms jinshin baibai and ‘human trafficking’. They generally argued that jinshin baibai carries the image of private agents’ involvement and does not necessarily imply ‘coercion’, while ‘human trafficking’ encompasses ‘coercion’ and involvement of a range of entities, including state and military. In fact, Rui Abiru of Sankei Shimbun reported a comment by Abe’s aid that jinshin baibai did not include kyosei renko (forcible taking away). Shizuya Fukuoka, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter, suggested that jinshin baibai was aimed at Abe’s domestic base, advocating the narrative of ‘comfort women’ being prostitutes recruited by Korean private agents, while ‘human trafficking’ conformed to the Western view of ‘comfort women’ as representing a violation of human rights.

Here, the subtle differences in the connotations between jinshin baibai and ‘human trafficking’ seem to be strategically exploited by the Japanese government to meet the different ideological expectations of the different audiences Abe had to address in the source speech and its translation. Considering the fact that Abe’s reference to jinshin baibai was unprecedented, it is plausible that he deliberately introduced it in order to produce the term ‘human trafficking’ in the English rendition. In other words, the translation existed before the source speech – the wording jinshin baibai in the source speech was a carefully choreographed ‘pre-translation’.

Catering to a domestic audience

This section examines two examples of the Japanese government’s controversial translation from English into Japanese in the politics of war memories.

‘Forced to work’ versus ‘forced labour’

In 2015, twenty-three industrial locations in southern Japan were designated as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites. In the deliberation process, however, there was considerable negotiation involving Japan and South Korea as some of the sites had used forced labourers from Korea, China, POW camps and so forth during the Second World War. In order to secure a unanimous vote, Japan reportedly conceded to South Korea’s demand to include a reference to forced labour in its official statement in English. However, Japan insisted on the wording ‘forced to work’ instead of ‘forced labour’. Ultimately, this diplomatic word game resulted in the following statement by the Japanese government: ‘Japan is prepared to take measures that allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work in harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites.’16

Although the two phrases – ‘forced to work’ and ‘forced labour’ – seem to mean exactly the same thing in English, the corresponding Japanese phrase for ‘forced to work’ (hatarakasareta) sounds colloquial and less significant than the standard Japanese translation for ‘forced labour’ (kyosei rodo). This choice of phrase which leads to hatarakasareta in Japanese allows the Japanese government to weaken the impression of its admission of having used forced labour as understood in international conventions. In fact, Japanese officials emphasized to the domestic audience that the phrase hatarakasareta (forced to work) does not mean kyosei rodo (forced labour). Thus, the wording of the source text in English was determined based on the effect of its Japanese translation in the government’s communication to its domestic audience, especially Abe’s conservative support base. This can also be viewed as a case of the source text and the target text having different purposes, and of the practice of ‘pre-translation’ to achieve desired translation.

What kind of suffering?

In 2016, the Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers’ meeting in Hiroshima adopted a declaration on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. There was a controversy in Japan over an alleged discrepancy between the original declaration in English and its Japanese translation provided by the MOFA. The declaration included a sentence: ‘Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced immense devastation and human suffering as a consequence of the atomic bombings.’ The phrase ‘human suffering’ in this sentence was translated by the MOFA as hiningenteki na kunan, the literal back-translation of which is inhumane suffering.

It was reported that, concerning nuclear weapons, Japan originally sought the inclusion of the wording ‘humanitarian consequences’ in the declaration but conceded to opposition by the nuclear powers among the G7 states: the United States, Britain and France. In fact, these countries abstained from voting for a UN resolution that included the phrase ‘humanitarian consequences’ in the previous year. A direct, literal translation of ‘human suffering’ would be ningen no kunan, which would sound too understated and insensitive to the experience of the atomic bomb survivors. The Japanese translation here can be viewed as rewriting to cater to the general sentiment among the Japanese concerning the bombings.

This issue of translation attracted critical comments from the media, academics and activists. In response to questions raised by news reporters, a MOFA official defended its translation, saying that various types of diplomatic documents are translated in different ways depending on the purpose of the translation, and that this word choice (hiningenteki) was suitable for the purpose of this particular document, which was to send a strong message supporting a world without nuclear weapons.17 It is noteworthy that, when pressed to explain the general policy on translation methods of diplomatic documents, the MOFA emphasized a purpose-driven approach, just like the functionalist approach in Translation Studies. Unwittingly, the MOFA appears to be embracing a post-equivalence, non-essentialist approach to translation.18


I have argued that translation plays a vital role in communicating a nation’s war memory effectively to different audiences across languages to enhance its legitimacy and garner support. The Japanese government has been using translation strategically to protect national interests, circumvent diplomatic complications and cater to the political sentiment of its domestic audience. This phenomenon can be explained by the notion of translation as a purpose-driven activity and a form of rewriting which is subject to ideological and political expectations of the patron and the target audience. I have also argued that, in the politics of war memories, the source text can be manipulated in advance in order to produce a desired translation.

As demonstrated in the examples above, it is not difficult nowadays to locate the source texts and their translations that form the narrative of contested war memories (or in any context for that matter) thanks to the internet and general government policies promoting transparency. Translation can be another lens in the investigation of how contested war memories are represented and communicated. In addition, the choices made in translation and interpreting now have greater visibility and exposure for being scrutinized and critiqued. Just as the MOFA articulated how it dealt with translation and stood by it, translators and those who commission translations are now increasingly expected to be able to account for what they translate and how they translate. Further, the risk translators and interpreters take in producing ‘non-standard’ translations, as found in the cases of ‘my apologies’ and hiningenteki, can be analysed in the framework of translators’ risk management with attention to professional ethics in future research.19