Japan: Lessons in Communication from the Hatoyama Essay

When an online Op-Ed piece by current Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama appeared in the New York Times just days before the Lower House elections last month, national reaction ranged from surprise to consternation to pure mortification. “A New Path for Japan” was an abridged and translated version of “My Political Philosophy” [ja], which was published in the Japanese magazine VOICE. The administration has claimed that they had no prior knowledge that the essay would be released in this way and that Hatoyama was “misquoted“.

"Security Council Summit on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament" by Flickr user United Nations Photo

‘Security Council Summit on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament’ by Flickr user United Nations Photo

There are two aspects to this controversy: the logic or lack thereof of the arguments made in the essay and the process of how the Japanese text was edited and published in mainstream American media.

Well, was it a matter of bad editing and bad translation?

Seiichi Nakamura thinks it played a big part.


Because the New York Times selectively edited the original essay published in VOICE, “The Battle Flag of Yuuai, learned from my grandfather, Ichiro” (the sub title of ‘My Political Philosophy’), it was simply insufficient. The nuances of Hatoyama's intent are not relayed in their entirety. In addition, the essay expands on Coudenhove-Kalergi's noble idea of fraternité (Ichiro Hatoyama translated this as yuuai 友愛) for a unique political philosophy with a touch of Japanese-ness. [The English version] offers no such context and there is no way that this translated version on its own will be understood by Westerners, especially Americans, who have a very different ideological background.


Let me say this to avoid being midunderstood. There are many points made in Hatoyama's argument that I agree with, and, if communicated correctly, there is a lot in common with President Obama's liberal political theories. I think that a fruitful collaboration is possible.

However, politics and foreign diplomacy must be realistic in the extreme. The world is currently in a very precarious situation and human society is at an important turning point, one that will decide where the path to our future will lead. It's not a time to be making indeliberate declarations.

Takashi Kimura also believes that straight translation alone is not enough.


Hatoyama's theory of yuuai in “My Political Philosophy” is a half Japanese and half-Western one. Asking for it to be understood by simply offering an English translation is difficult for cultures like the United States, where indirect ways of speaking – such as with unspoken agreement, nonverbal communication, and reading others’ minds – does not exist.

He goes on to criticize some political ineptness on Hatoyama's part.


On the other hand, his argument in the essay regarding “criticism of globalism”, a topic that belongs perhaps in a low context culture, is not something that can stand up to sharp criticism from abroad when taken out of context from the main topic. The fact that he submitted this for publication signals his lack of experience.

MTC at the Shisaku blog says that it's an excuse that doesn't resonate anymore.

I am not sure the “Just-ignore-what-the-essay-says-it-is-only-meant-for-domestic-consumption-and-contains-a-lot-of-code-phrases-that can only be understood-in-the-context-of-Japanese-election-propaganda-and-in-Japan-nobody-believes-anything-printed-especially-when-the-author's-stringing-together-of-platitudinous-utterances-makes-him-sound-like-he-is-stoned” defense is going to work anymore. The damn thing is out of the box now, getting quoted and analyzed.

In “Lost in Syndication: The Case of the Hatoyama Essay“, Nathan Gardels wrote “In the information age, no country is an island anymore, not even Japan.” Gardels is the editor of Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services and the one who started the balls rolling for the essay to be introduced into the English media.

All this in itself is indeed surprising. Doesn't everyone get that today we live in a global glass house? That in a world tied together by social networks, the Internet, YouTube, web journalism, innumerable blogs and even print syndication, anything you say in Japan is going to be heard everywhere else?

Satomi performed a thorough cross check on the original Japanese essay and the English translation.

さすがスタンフォード博士号、事務所の英語も申し分ない。(まあ、それがアダに出て転載されちゃったわけだけど…。追:短縮版は通信社Global Viewpoint/TMS経由の配信) 両方比べてみると、元の原稿では第1章にカレルギーの名言「人間は目的であって手段ではない。国家は手段であって目的ではない」とその説明が出てくるのに、NYタイムズの転載記事は第2章終盤の「~資本主義が原理的に追求されていくとき、人間は目的ではなく手段におとしめられ、その尊厳を失う」から始まるので、「目的」と「手段」という言葉を元々誰がどういう文脈で使ったのか分からず、のっけから穏やかじゃない。 でもま、変わってる部分と言ってもそれぐらいか。残りは単なるコピペ。でも書き出しで読み手のマインドセットは9割ぐらい決まっちゃうものなので、あの書き出しはなんとかして欲しい。


The translation by Hatoyama's office is more than acceptable, worthy of a man with a doctorate degree from Stanford University. (Well, this turned out to to be an unfortunate fact that led to the article being reproduced.) If you compare the two articles, the original essay quotes and explains Kalergi's words “Man is an end and not a means. The State is a means and not an end.*” in chapter one. However, the New York Times article starts with “[…] but in the fundamentalist pursuit of capitalism, which can be described as ‘freedom formalized in economic terms’, has resulted in people being treated not as an end but as a means*”, which appears at the end of Chapter Two. Who said “end” and “means” and in what context is lost, and the English version starts off sounding harsh. Actually though, that's about it for changes. The rest is just copy and paste. Still, the opening words decide 90% of the readers’ mindset so I'd like them to do something about that part.

Let's cross check the entire original article, and put into Japanese the parts that they reproduced. The grey words are the parts that were omitted from the NYT post, and the orange is the parts that were edited.

* Excerpted from the English translation [doc] available on Hatoyama's official site. There is also a Korean translation [doc].

Tobias Harris actually found the English version to be better than the original essay:

I do not buy the idea that his original essay was distorted through translation — if anything the translated, abridged version was far superior to the original, which I found to be “a mishmash of pop-anti-globalizationism, mystical brotherhood-ism, and nostalgic conservatism,” and distressed by the idea that it might be a serious guide to Hatoyama's thinking. And at no point in the original essay did Hatoyama give much thought to the positives of globalization. The original reads just like a longer, harsher version of the translation, with nearly a page of discussion of how capitalism treats people as means, not ends, and about how it destroys values, traditions, and communities.

He lists three lessons that he hopes the Hatoyama administration has learned.

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