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  • Christina Theodorakis

How the Meanings of Japanese Words Can Be Twisted

I've written about how Japanese people invent new meanings for English words (e.g., "U-turn" and "half") or invent new English words altogether (e.g., "I-turn" and "hign"), but the reason why they think it's okay to do that goes back to how they use their own native Japanese language.

Arguably, Japanese isn't as precise a language as English is in terms of word meanings and even sentence structure. Japanese prepositions -- or, more accurately, post-positions -- can be mixed up in a sentence, and the meaning of the sentence will still come across. That's why it's almost impossible to make a Japanese sentence make as little sense as a poorly written English sentence -- from a grammatical standpoint -- and why it's so difficult to explain why an English sentence is incorrect to a Japanese person.

The main point of today's blog is to show you how Japanese words can be twisted to mean something very different from their original meaning through a recent article we saw on NHK (Japan's state-run media) about the decision to release radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean.

There was a sentence in the article that drew our attention because of how they subtly changed the meaning of the Japanese word "風評被害" (transliterated as fuu'hyou higai).

Here's my translation of the sentence it was in for context:

The government will take measures to thoroughly monitor the levels of tritium in the waste water before and after its release [into the ocean], counter any baseless claims or false reporting that is detrimental, and provide compensation for any damage that occurs in the process.

Now, the word "風評被害" (fuu'hyou higai) is supposed to be used when there's false or misleading information being spread that damages someone financially or reputationally. You can see a really good recent example of how this word is supposed to be used by looking at when people were googling "corona beer virus" at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, leading to some confusion that the beer was what the commotion about the 2019 novel coronavirus (aka COVID-19) was all about. Although Corona beer didn't take a financial hit due to the fear, had they have done so, it would've been a "風評被害" (fuu'hyou higai) incident.

When the Japanese government used the term in the NHK article in reference to the radioactive waste water disposal, we started to question what could be baseless about the fact that the government had announced their decision to dump radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean in said article -- as well as how it could be harmful. According to my Japanese colleagues, when a Japanese person reads how the word "風評被害" (fuu'hyou higai) is being used in the sentence I referred to above, it sounds like the government is trying to say that the fact that radioactive water is unsafe is a baseless claim; however, any radioactivity caused by humans is obviously harmful to some degree. By using the term "風評被害" (fuu'hyou higai), the government is indirectly saying that they want to protect the local economy from rumors about radioactive water that are baseless, but they wouldn't be baseless rumors because the government has just announced that they're going to dump the waste water into the ocean, which is also not a good thing from an environmental angle.

As a company, we believe in protecting our planet from human action or short-sighted profiteering because humans have developed and irresponsibly used enough technology to destroy the Earth's natural balance in just the last century. We wanted to highlight that the way this issue is being reported in Japan doesn't take into consideration the full risks and dangers that the waste water disposal will have on the Earth's ecosystem, which will affect every person and animal around the globe thanks to the food chain. And we believe that the whole world should be looking into this because it's our responsibility as humans. Japan is taking the easy way out, but this should be a message to people all over the world that the disposal of radioactive water isn't strictly a Japanese issue; it's a global one. If we continue to treat the Earth like a planetary wastebasket, that's what it'll become.


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