Jeffrey LewisTranslating the Okada Letter

Reader Michael Cucek, on his blog Shisaku, offers some commentary on the translation of Japanese Foreign Minister Okada’s letter to SECSTATE Clinton regarding the nuclear umbrella. One key passage involved whether Japanese diplomats did, or did not, tell the Strategic Posture Commission that the Japanese government opposed retirement of the archaic nuclear-armed Tomahawk missile aka TLAM-N.

Okada made clear this was not the position of the government, but seemed to deny the government had ever lobbied for TLAM-N. I wondered in my post if this was a non-denial denial and wished that I could parse the Japanese.

Cucek did just that, noting two very interesting word choices in Japanese that bear on the question of what, precisely, Okada was denying.

Cucek suggests an alternative translation of the passage in question that makes clear Okada is not denying that Mr. Akiba expressed his support for the TLAM or other systems, but that those views were not necessarily those of the government. Here is Cucek’s revised translation of the key paragraph:

Hence, although the discussions were held under the previous Cabinet, it is my understanding that, in the course of exchanges between our countries, including the deliberations of the above mentioned Commission, it was never the case that views were expressed as being those of our government concerning whether or not your government should possess particular [weapons] systems such as TLAM/N and RNEP. If, in some tentative way such a view was expressed, it would clearly be at variance with my views, which are in favor of nuclear disarmament.

I happen to understand, from multiple conversations, that Mr. Akiba most certainly did express the view that this was the official position of the Japanese government. (Indeed, this was the entire reason for the second meeting with Japanese officials.) That, in turn, raises the question of whether Mr. Akiba exceeded his mandate, and should be sacked, or whether he simply moved carelessly between his own personal views and those of his government, which might require a lesser disciplinary action. (I continue to believe, however, that he was just doing his job.) Chances are, the current DPJ government simply wants to put all this to bed and move forward with the current policy.

The real shame here, I should add, is all the time we are wasting on irrelevant and useless nuclear weapons like the TLAM-Ns, which are warehoused for good reason — not least the clobbering problem.

One view that Mr. Akiba did express during the meeting, in his personal capacity, was for high-level consultations between the U.S. and Japan analogous to those conducted within the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, and subordinate High Level Group. I happen to think that is a very good idea and, on balance, considerably more important than haggling over troop levels or particular systems, which inevitably must change over time. The preference for consultation over specific systems as a method of reassurance was an argument that I tried to make at the Carnegie Endowment a while back — only to learn that Sir Michael Howard made the same argument both more eloquently and when I was in grade-school.

Oh well.

I have to be in Tokyo twice in the next three months. I clearly owe someone an Asahi Super Dry for excellence in translation.


  1. MTC (History)

    Dr. Lewis –

    The diplomats of Japan are some of the most conscientious persons you will ever meet. They are always just doing their jobs. When they say anything they are doing so under orders.

    The letters in question, although written to Secretaries Clinton and Gates, are purely for domestic consumption, offering an explanation to the Japanese people why members of the bureaucracy, in complete contradiction to Japan’s official stance against all nuclear weapons, would secretly lobby a U.S. advisory group on keeping particular nuclear weapons systems. Hence the release of the Clinton letter in a scanned Japanese pdf rather than in html or in an official English translation.

    Foreign Minister Okada does not want to get into a back-and-forth with the U.S. government about what previous cabinets forced Japanese diplomats to say in the dying days of Liberal Democratic Party rule. He also certainly does not believe anyone should be fired for following secret orders; he very much wants his Foreign Ministry staff to be loyal to the political leadership. In comparison to the raft of secret Japan-U.S. nuclear weapons agreements that have finally been admitted, this lobbying effort is both part of a pattern and rather small potatoes. The letter represents Okada’s offer to his subordinates “go and sin no more” with the implicit promise that the current Democratic Party of Japan-led government will never press diplomats into becoming the fall guys for decisions handed out by cowardly political appointees.

  2. Jun Okumura (History)


    The original translation is more or less correct. The double Japanese if’s in this case are no different than the more common comma-less examples and merely emphasizes the point of the hypothetical nature of the sentence. Note, though, that this does not mean that Okada is claiming that such an act was not committed; he is merely expressing his understanding that such is the case. He is human, he could be wrong; he is not denying that.

    The Japanese language is very permissive when it comes to punctuation rules for commas—except with regard to government documents, where the rules are very rigid. The entire document carefully follows those rules (they call for consistent use, and more of them than is the norm in common usage, which fact must have thrown off Michael); dig around this useful site ( and you should find that “moshi,” the first “if” (but not “karini”, the second “if”) is always followed by a comma.

    Now, let me give you a very, very loose translation of what Okada is saying in and between those lines. It goes something like this:

    “As far as I’m concerned, nobody with the legal authority to do so said any such thing on behalf of the Japanese Government. So if I happen to be currently aware that a Japanese official happened to have said such a thing to a US official—and I’m not admitting or denying that I am aware of such a thing—then he must have been speaking in his capacity as a private citizen or whatever. To be sure, I am not omniscient, and somebody may have forgotten to remember to tell me or may be just flat-out lied to me. So just to be doubly certain, if a Japanese official had said such a thing to a US official in his official capacity, you can forget about it now because there’s a new sheriff in Tokyo. And no, I do not intend to task Professor Kitaoka’s truth commission to look into this.”

    Finally, don’t bother going to my blog right now; I’ve been too preoccupied to post there for awhile.

    Hope that helps.