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I had always thought that the Japanese didn't have a word for surrender before WWII. It seemed to be plausible given their culture. However, I can't seem to find any solid evidence of this. Is it just a myth?

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Do you know what the word for surrender in Japanese is? If someone says “Japanese did not have a word for surrender before World War II” without saying what the word for surrender is in the current Japanese, then you should take his/her words with a grain of salt. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jan 31 '13 at 15:53
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I am somewhat curious what cultural impression you have of Japan that suggests the possibility of no word for "surrender". To me, the culture seems to suggest the exact opposite (and indeed, there are a large number of nouns & verbs for "surrender", all originating before WWII). –  Darius Jahandarie Jan 31 '13 at 18:03
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Not only is it a myth, it's a particularly silly one. If they didn't have a word for surrender, how would they explain to the soldiers that they were not supposed to surrender? –  user18597 Feb 1 '13 at 2:45
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@Dave M G: Your reference to my comment is puzzling me. My comment has nothing to do with whether this question is suitable on this website or not. (As an aside, I agree that questions about widespread myths about Japanese are on-topic.) –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 1 '13 at 8:02
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Mark Liberman once wrote: "[W]hen someone makes a sociological point by saying that language L has no word for concept C, you'll rarely lose by betting that they're wrong. (And if they say or imply that speakers of language L have no way to express concept C, then you'll almost never never lose by betting against them.)" –  snailboat Feb 2 '13 at 15:20
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2 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

降伏 (こうふく) is borrowed from Classical Chinese and probably has many centuries of history. After all, in the Sengoku period there were probably many, many surrenders of lords to other lords.

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I think this question is relevant: What do you mean, "In Japanese there are no words for "I’m suffering""?

Also a little googling leads to a quote where this is clearly being used metaphorically by the speaker (presuming this is even an accurate quote/translation and not made up):

Captain Sasaki of the Yokahama Guards: "There is no such word as surrender in the Japanese vocabulary. Japan must fight! why should it surrender? There is still a huge Japanese army on the Chinese mainland, and Japan still holds 350,000 Allied prisoners of war."

This link talks about leaflets scattered during the second world war to encourage Japanese soldiers to surrender. Initial leaflets said "I surrender" but later ones said "I cease resistance", and were more successful. Whether or not this was really down to the implications of 降伏 versus more euphemistic terms is hard to say, but this is probably the original source of 'no word for surrender'.

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Wow, I did not think of that possibility. Nice detective work! According to Wikipedia, the original quote in Japanese is 皇軍の辞書に降伏の二字なし. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 1 '13 at 16:57
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Hmm then it means something very different...rather that "the vocabulary of the army has no surrender"... –  user54609 Feb 2 '13 at 3:14
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