The Linguistic Hurdles of Covering an Assassination

News outlets cover events from around the world and often have to work to get information as quickly as possible to release in their native languages. This can lead to some interesting translation errors or highlight linguistic differences. I want to make it very clear that I am only focusing on those linguistic elements, and am not at all qualified to comment on the shooting of Abe Shinzo. 

There are two terms I want to talk about from the news coverage of the shooting – 心肺停止 and assassination. These terms were used from different sides of the event, one domestic and one international. I want to discuss what these terms mean in their native context, and how meaning or perception can be lost in translation. 

心肺停止

My years on the high school debate team taught me that starting your argument with a dictionary definition really isn’t a good idea, but I’m going to do it anyway. My favorite Japanese-English dictionary, jisho.org has this for the definition of 心肺停止: 

Since the word has the kanji for “heart,” “lungs,” and “stoppage” it makes sense that the first definition is cardiopulmonary arrest, which is in no way incorrect. My interest is in the note accompanying the second definition; “media term for unconfirmed death.” One of the reasons why I use jisho.org so frequently is because of these helpful context notes, and I trust that the site is reputable and the term is notated correctly. However, I also confirmed this connotation on the Japanese Wikipedia entry for 心肺停止.  

A few hours after Abe had been shot and medivac-ed to the hospital, Japanese news organizations were reporting that he was in a state of 心肺停止, while Western news organizations were reporting that he was in cardiopulmonary arrest. When I spoke to other Americans, like my parents, who were also watching the news coverage as it unfolded, it was clear that at the time, they thought there was potential that he could recover. However, by studying the usage of this one term, I think there’s a reasonable argument to say that Japanese news stations were reporting Abe dead while the rest of the world was reporting that he was still in critical condition. 

Part of what got me thinking along these lines was a tweet from right-wing novelist and TV producer Hyakuta Naoki. Hyakuta and Abe were apparently close friends, as they wrote a book together, shared nationalistic beliefs, and Hyakuta was chosen to be one of NHK’s governors by Abe during his time as Prime Minister. I am by no means claiming that Hyakuta is a reputable source, and I have no evidence to support his statement, but the tweet claims that “Mr. Shinzo Abe has passed away” several hours before the official declaration. It goes on to say that Hyakuta will be streaming on YouTube to share information.

Whether or not Hyakuta received information ahead of the public because of his connection to Abe, or whether he was also making assumptions based on the media’s usage of 心肺停止 is unclear.

While this theory of a discrepancy in global reporting due to the specific connotations of one term may be wildly off, I think it’s a fascinating concept to explore, and something that needs to be taken into account to have a piece of media be truly translated.

Assassination

As soon as the news came out that a former leader of a country and major political figure had been shot, the word “assassination” popped into my head. News outlets like the BBC and CNN also immediately began reporting the incident as an assassination. As far as I knew, everyone in the world knew it had been an assassination and I didn’t even consider that it would be referred to as anything else. Then I found an article from the Japan Times that highlighted something I hadn’t noticed: Japan wasn’t calling it an assassination.

The article explains that even though Japanese news outlets have used the word assassination in the past, this was strictly for foreign events, like the assassination of President of Haiti Jovenel Moise in 2021. However, the informally agreed upon term for Abe’s death seems to be “death after being shot.” However, this broad description doesn’t convey nearly the same amount of information that “assassination” does. Death by shooting could have been a tragic accident, a premeditated murder, or some kind of organized criminal activity. So why wasn’t the term used?

Fukada Masahiko, the author of the article, spoke to an unnamed news editor, who said that assassinations are so rare in Japan, that there isn’t really an established use case for the word in a domestic setting. While knowing and understanding the word, it seems that using it to refer to an incident in Japan proved to be linguistically difficult. The editor said that “There is no definition in our stylebook as to when to use the word ‘assassination’ and when not to use it.”

I took to Twitter again to find some more perspectives on the article. Yoda Hiroko, Japanese author and president of AltJapan Co., Ltd., commented in response to the article, that she hadn’t thought of the shooting as an assassination.

So the question remains: are the connotations and definition of 暗殺 different from the English word assassination? Or is the concept of an assassination in Japan just so shocking that Japanese citizens have mentally put distance between themselves and the word? Or is it a bit of both?

#投票は香典じゃない

The final, bonus bit of linguistics related to assassination/death by shooting is a hashtag. I find trending hashtags in response to news or media events to be incredibly fascinating. They’re such a good way to look at how people on the internet use language, in addition to what people on the internet are currently talking about. This hashtag, which translates as “a vote is not a funeral offering” specifically references the timing of Abe’s death – just a few days before an election. The hashtag is used to remind Japanese voters that their votes should be cast with their best judgment and that using a vote to honor Abe is not the way to go. This user summarizes the phrase perfectly by saying “voting for the LDP to show condolences for Mr. Abe is a big mistake.”

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