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The semantic dimensions of an international story: the Ehime Maru incident.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of a major international incident involving the governments of the United States and Japan, which remains vivid today, especially in Japan. The incident and its aftermath was one of the top stories of 2001; it hastened the resignation of the Japanese Prime Minister, provoked an apology from the U.S. President (U.S. media plays up Ehime Maru tragedy, 2001), led to a closely watched trial, and now serves as an important case study in the training of U.S. Naval officers (Submarine Collision Chronology, 2001). Little recognized in all this is the crucial role of the semantics of the story as it played out internationally.

At 1:43 p.m. on February 9, 2001, in the waters nine miles from Honolulu, HI, a Japanese high school fisheries training ship, the Ehime Maru, was struck from below by the U.S. Navy submarine the USS Greeneville during a demonstration of the sub's emergency surfacing ability. Nine people aboard the Japanese training ship died, including four high school students. The significance of the words chosen and the images evoked in the Japanese and U.S. reports offer insights into how differently the story was, and still is, considered and serves as a reminder that we need to be aware of the semantic dimensions of international news stories we encounter everyday.

Here are five lessons for anyone concerned with the general semantics of news reports and the reactions they may evoke.

"Trawler" or "High School Training Ship" (renshu-sen) in Hawaiian Waters

In the first U.S. reporting of the incident (The New York Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press) most identified the Japanese high school ship as "a Japanese trawler," or a "Japanese fishing vessel." The impression given was of a Japanese trawler, the kind of ship that harvests great quantities of fish and serves as a veritable fish factory, many times the size of the actual modest high school training vessel. Immediately after the facts of the collision were clear, the Japanese consulate office in Hawaii asked that the U.S. report correct this "trawler" identification, but it was several days before any changes were made in the U.S. reportage. The impression of a collision with a trawler remains today for many Americans who recall the incident.

In the Japanese press (Asahi, Mainichi, Yomiuri), the Ehime Maru was identified as a "renshu-sen" a training vessel, for high school students who were learning to become fishermen or sailors. The immediate concern was for the students and their teachers whose school ship displayed the words, in English, "Uwajima Maritime High School." Thus, for the Japanese public what had been struck by the sub was a floating high school whose students and teachers were identified by name and in photos as soon as the news story appeared.

The semantic difference between a "high school training vessel" and a "trawler" is less about how a ship is characterized or mischaracterized, but rather how the choice of words fits with the larger imagined category. In the U.S.A. and in U.S. reporting, a "high school training vessel" is not a familiar category or even a subcategory, but a Japanese "trawler" is a familiar image. Indeed, in the U.S.A., the image of a ship (or vessel) is a category that does not usually include a high school training vessel. American English has no easy translation of "renshu-sen" although a simple description does not require knowledge of anything culturally specific. In contrast, the Japanese have a clear image of a "renshu-sen" as well as a U.S. nuclear submarine and memories of previous incidents associated with nuclear submarines.

Compounding the reactions in the U.S.A. was that the incident occurred "off Oahu," near the port of departure for the Ehime Maru en route to returning to Japan. The accident happened in international waters, but an impression for many in the U.S.A. was the question what a Japanese fishing ship would be doing near Pearl Harbor, a name that evokes signal reactions of the Japanese attack seven decades ago. The associations with World War II were further intensified for some guests aboard the Greeneville, including Suzan Noran, with her husband, Micky Noran, Director of the USS Missouri Memorial Association. The USS Missouri was prominent in the battle of Iwo Jima, perhaps the most famous battle in the Pacific war, and it was on the USS Missouri that Japan surrendered to Douglas MacArthur, ending the war. When Capt. Waddle read aloud the name painted on the side of the ship "Uwajima High School," Mrs. Noran mistook "Uwajima" for "Iwo Jima" (Erlinder & Usui, 2006).

U.S. Nuclear Submarine

Any report about a U.S. nuclear submarine may evoke a reaction among Japanese that may be different from that in the U.S.A. The Japanese Constitution prohibits nuclear materials, and vessels, from entering Japanese ports. Whenever a nuclear-powered ship or a vessel believed to be carrying nuclear material or weapons enters Japan, there are widespread demonstrations in opposition, events that receive considerable media attention. It is also true that there is an unspoken "understanding" by the Japanese public that nuclear submarines have visited with the tacit approval of the Japanese government. While in the U.S.A. the words "U.S. nuclear submarine" may be merely descriptive or, for some, stir positive feelings, in Japan the reactions to the words range from the merely descriptive to the hostile and cynical feelings.

For many Japanese and especially those from the prefecture of Ehime, the collision of a U.S. nuclear submarine and a Japanese ship evoked memories of April 1981, when a Japanese cargo ship, the Nissho Maru, was struck by the USS George Washington, a nuclear submarine, in the waters off the prefecture of Kagoshima in southern Japan. The collision occurred during the Cold War when covert agreements between the U.S. and Japanese governments were suspected but mostly unknown. Not wanting its secret mission exposed, the submarine quickly left the scene, and before Japanese rescue ships could arrive, the Nissho Maru captain and a member of the crew perished. The incident is still remembered in Japan, especially in Ehime prefecture because, like the Ehime Maru, the Nissho Maru was also from Ehime prefecture. For many Japanese this new incident showed that the U.S.A. had not learned anything in the previous 20 years, and for many this latest collision recalled other incidents in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere when the U.S. military was implicated in civilian deaths but subsequently avoided assuming responsibility.

"Victims" or "Missing" ("Yukue fumei sha")

While the U.S. reporting was initially centered on the vessels, followed by attention to the resulting loss of life, the Japanese emphasis was on the people, especially as many of these were young men whose faces and stories, and those of their families and schoolmates, appeared in newspapers and on television daily and for many months afterwards. The story in Japan was about innocent people, especially high school students who in Japan hold a unique place of affection and even honor.

The semantic significance across cultures appears in the words chosen to identify those whose lives may be lost as the result of the accident and the efforts for rescue or recovery. In the U.S. reporting, "victims" was the word used most often shortly after the incident. In contrast, the Japanese reports were of "yukue fumei sha" ("missing people"). In Japan, words equivalent to "dead," "presumed dead," "bodies," and "victims" are avoided in reports of accidents until the evidence of the death is unmistakable. This is in part out of consideration for the families but also in this case for the larger sense of "family," including classmates, teachers, and townspeople in Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture. From a Japanese perspective, the U.S. reporting of "victims" was premature, insensitive, and perhaps irresponsible. Moreover, in Japanese culture, the belief that words convey spiritual power (kotodama) is widespread, and thus one must be careful in one's choice of words. There is a tacit belief in traditional Japanese culture that words have spirit or power and that saying something can cause it to happen. This is in contrast to kotoage, a view of the map territory consideration for words, which is consistent with a general semantics philosophy.

In addition, there are strong spiritual associations with the sea and the risk of death, as one finds in island nations and fishing communities in many parts of the world. In Japan, children are warned not to swim in the sea at certain times or risk being pulled under by the spirits of those who have drowned or whose spirits are believed to have returned to the sea. From the perspective of most Japanese, referring to the missing as "victims" was insensitive, and for many, it was literally tempting fate. In any case, in Japan, the use of the word "victims" in the U.S. reporting soon after the incident occurred was disturbing.

"Unfortunate Accident" or "Careless Human Error"

The presentation of the facts of what happened was little different in the initial news reports in both countries: the submarine struck the ship that soon sank, lives were lost, and efforts were made to rescue any survivors. The reporting of questions about why this happened diverged. After the almost immediate formal expressions of regret in the U.S.A., reported in the media of both countries, the "why" question receded in U.S. coverage and increased in Japanese reporting (Five Key Factors, 2001). The Greene-ville was a U.S. naval ship, with the responsibility and resources of a national government involved, while the Ehime Maru was a prefectural school ship, responsible to local and prefectural authorities.

In the U.S. reporting, the collision was a tragic or unfortunate accident, with the submarine responsible for unfortunately striking a ship that the captain did not know was in the vicinity. The presence of guests, invited as part of a navy public relations program, in the submarine's control room was minimized in the U.S. government reports and media coverage. The "why" question was deferred to be considered at a trial that would occur at a later date. Japanese reporting, in contrast, gave increasing attention to the "political guests," and how their presence may have contributed to the collision that cost lives: who were those people in the control room, why were they there, what effect did their presence have on what happened, and why is this part of the story not being discussed? Japanese reports raised questions about the "guests" who had been invited into the control room of the submarine, a presence that seemed incomprehensible to the Japanese public. The attention to the presence of guests became an issue in the subsequent navy trial, though never raised to the importance that it held in Japan from the beginning.

In Japan after an accident occurs, there is a greater assumption of some culpability by both parties than is the case, from a Japanese perspective, in the U.S.A., which is seen as a litigious society in which the question of fault should be argued in a court of law. In Japan when there is a conflict, there is usually the expectation of offering an immediate apology, at least at a social level. Conversely, there is also a strong aversion to appear to avoid expressing responsibility. It is expected that the person officially in charge of a group or organization will apologize, and in serious cases, may even resign to show that he or she is accepting responsibility. For Japanese, generally, an apology conveys at the very least social maturity and indicates sincerity, irrespective of legal and financial responsibilities. In contrast, in the semantic context of the U.S.A. today, any apology risks being cited in a subsequent courtroom trial as admission of guilt.


The cultural contexts that affect the meanings of an apology--when and how and by whom the apology is expressed--became an emotional issue in the reporting of this incident in the U.S.A. and in Japan. In Japan, the concern about an apology had appeared in news stories and headlines almost from the moment the incident was first reported. It was the only aspect of this tragedy that was recognized in both countries as involving cultural considerations. The awareness of cultural dimensions, however, did not appear to result in greater intercultural understanding. If anything, much of the discussion only exacerbated the problem, as the subject of "apologies" became a story in itself (Kiyomiya, 2001; Nakao, 2001).

Immediately after the collision, an official U.S. inquiry placed blame on the Greeneville, and government officials quickly expressed apologies. On February 11, U.S. Ambassador Foley met Prime Minister Mori to give an apology from President Bush and American people, and he promised to investigate the cause of the accident fully and to do his best to rescue the missing people as Mori had requested. In Japan, through their senator from Ehime prefecture, the families whose sons and husbands were missing requested a personal apology from Captain Waddle. The response to the families was that Waddle had a constitutional right to remain silent on matters in which he might be legally liable or that could jeopardize him in court. It is part of American democracy, Commander Blair said, and that while Waddle might choose to apologize personally, he cannot be asked to do so, and his rights were protected by U.S. law (Nakao, 2001).

Meanwhile, through his lawyer, Waddle issued a written statement in which he expressed: " ... my most sincere regret ... no words can adequately express my condolences." The Washington Post wrote that his apology was received by many Japanese as "too little, too late, and too impersonal," which alluded to a comment by the younger brother of one of the victims. "Frankly speaking, at this stage, we don't even know if he [Waddle] wrote it. We can't see him and we don't hear him. ... It's so late, it does not convey his sincerity" (Struck, 2001). Before he sent his statement, Waddle had replaced one lawyer with another who was well known for his success in handling military cases. This report angered the Japanese families who saw Waddle's personal reasons to delay the court proceedings as a tactic, done without remorse. In addition, Waddle's refusal to provide oral answers to a federal investigation brought more anger (Yamamoto, Feb. 23, 2001). Thus, the initial reaction of the submarine crew's not revealing information about civilians on board, the absence of Waddle from public view, and the delaying of the court schedule all cast doubt on the sincerity of Waddle's statement of regret, now seen as too late and still not the personal apology they had hoped for. Japanese media did not pass judgment on the apology or lack thereof, but rather focused on reactions of the families. It was at this point that the American media started paying attention to why an apology mattered so much in this case.

On February 27, the Washington Post published an article, "In Japan, Victims' Families Expect a Personal Apology." This article attempted to explain why the apologies by the president, top military officers, and the ambassador to Japan were accepted politely but not fully by the Japanese. It reported that in Japan it would be unthinkable for a major accident to occur without a prompt apology in public, usually accompanied by low bow. A U.S. Embassy official said that the more serious an incident was, the quicker the Japanese apologize, and to fail to do so was seen as a lack of sincerity in Japan (Struck, 2001). Regarding the American's claim of the captain's constitutional right to remain silent, Yoshimasa Nakazato, professor of social psychology at Tokyo University was quoted as saying that this was not a traffic accident, and that claiming one had the right of way did not click in Japanese society (Struck, 2001).

During the time so much attention in the media was given to the subject of apologies, Captain Waddle had remained out of sight. However, on February 28, he visited the Japanese consulate office in Hawaii and apologized to a Japanese diplomat (Waddle zenkancho ga namida, 2001). He also presented letters to be given to the families, the captain of the Ehime Maru, the school principal, Prime Minister Mori, and others (Yamamoto, Feb. 26, 2001). All of the letters were typed, in a similar format, and seemed to be copies. When the representative of the family association, Terada, learned of this he expressed his anger and his ambivalence in finally seeing a change in Waddle's behavior (Yamanaka, 2006). In a television news interview, he commented that the letters were not personal since all of them were typed in the same way, and he noted what he saw as a cultural difference in writing letters. Even in modern Japan, it is still considered to be both more polite and an expression of sincerity when people write a personal letter by hand. This contrasts with the U.S. practice, in which a formal letter should be typed and signed. Waddle's letters may well have been written with all sincerity, but they were not interpreted by the families as Waddle had hoped.

Months after the tragic incident, Navy Captain Scott Waddle was reprimanded by a military court of inquiry. He was allowed to retire with full rank and pension.


Cultural influences on word choice and how words and phrases may evoke different semantic reactions among people can occur within a single nation and, indeed, within the same family. Across national and language differences, however, they are more complex, with many layers of personal and institutional involvement, including legal, political, and diplomatic factors. The experience one has personally or as part of a larger community, memories of events past, and feelings of suspicion or trust, all influence how one reacts to words and other symbolic expressions. "Renshu sen" may be translated a "high school maritime training vessel," but in the U.S.A. the words are unfamiliar and the reaction likely different from that of those who live in an island nation. "Nuclear submarine" translates directly into Japanese, but the historic associations with a nuclear submarine are different. "Yukue fumei sha" may be translated accurately as "missing people," but religious and cultural values related to the importance of recovery of the bodies differ as do feelings about when one hears the words "missing" or "victims" or "lost."

The act of apologizing may be universal, or nearly so, but the cultural considerations of the semantics of an apology proved to be most difficult, even as people in both the U.S.A. and Japan were more aware that there were cultural factors to be considered. At times, the very effort at explanation seemed to provoke more distress and call up other events, however unrelated, from the past.

The facts about the collision between the Greeneville and the Ehime Maru on February 9, 2001 will remain a part of the historic record in both the United States and Japan. The meanings of the event for those in the two countries were and are likely to remain somewhat different.


Erlinder, P., & Usui, M. (2006). Ehime Maru Jiken: Katararezaru Shinjitsu o Ou [Ehime Maru Incident: Pursuing the untold story]. Tokyo, Japan: Shin Nihon Shuppan.

Five key factors that led to sub collision identified (March 9, 2001). The Japan Times Online.

Kiyomiya, K. (February 28, 2001). Nihon no shazai youkyu ni fukaikan shimesu koramushi keisai, beishi [The U.S. column printed the dissatisfaction with Japan's requests for apology]. Mainichi Shinbun, 248.

Nakao, T. (February 22, 2001). Zenkancho ha shokuzai ishito ho no hazamani [Former Cmdr. is between wish to apologize and law according to the U.S. Admiral]. Mainichi Shinbun, 282.

Nishioka, S. (March 9, 2001). Zenkancho youyaku no shazai "kinodoku na tachiba" to kazoku [The former Cmdr. finally apologizes--"sympathetic position" said the families]. Mainichi Shinbun, 186.

Reaching out to Japan (February 13, 2001). The New York Times, Col0l, p.30

Statement by Admiral Fargo (April 24, 2001). The New York Times, Col04, p. 16.

Struck, D. (February 28, 2001). Japan is given letter of apology from Bush envoy says U.S. will try to raise ship. The Washington Post, p. A21.

Submarine Collision Chronology (March 20, 2001). Associated Press, newswire.

Sub officer apologizes to father of missing teacher (March 9, 2001). The Japan Times Online.

US media plays up Ehime Maru tragedy (February 16, 2001). Mainichi Daily News, Readers Forum.

Waddle zenkancho ga namida no shazai, nihon ryoujikan wo tazune [Former Cmdr. Waddle apologizes with tears, visiting the Japanese consulate office]. (March I, 2001). Mainichi Shinbun, 243.

Yamanaka, T. (2006). Ehime Maru Jiko: Ikari to Kanashimino Hazamade [Ehime Maru Incident: Between Anger and Sorrow]. Tokyo, Japan: Sofu-sha.

Yamamoto, N. (February 23, 2001). Zenkancho ni ratsuwan bengoshi, tsumino keigen wo ninau [The former Cmdr. hires skillful lawyer, seeking to reduce responsibility]. Mainichi Shinbun, 272.

Yamamoto, N. (February 26, 2001). Fumeikazoku nado he aitou to ikan noi, zen kancho [The former captain sends condolences and regrets to the families]. Mainichi Shinbun, 259.

Dr. Tomoko Masumoto is an Associate Professor of International Communication at the Kanda University of International Studies, Japan, specializing in intercultural and nonverbal communication. Her articles have appeared in the International Journal of Intercultural Management and other journals. Prof. Masumoto is coauthor, with John Condon, of With Respect to the Japanese: Going to Work in Japan (Intercultural Press, 2011).
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Author:Masumoto, Tomoko
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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