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Was IOC President Bach's Chinese-Japanese mix-up a linguistic lapse?

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach is seen making opening remarks during a visit to meet Seiko Hashimoto, President of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, in Tokyo's Chuo Ward on July 13, 2021. (Pool photo)

TOKYO -- Days after International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach's accidental reference to "Chinese people" when he was supposed to say "Japanese people," the reaction in Japan had yet to subside.

    International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach is seen addressing reporters' questions after a meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on July 14, 2021. IOC Vice President John Coates is seen on the right. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    While anyone can make a slip of the tongue, Bach's timing compounded the level of attention his remarks received. They were given in the days leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and were part of his first public statement following his arrival in Japan. Why did he mistakenly say Chinese people instead of Japanese people at such an important moment?

    The remarks in question were made on July 13, in a meeting with Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. President Bach gestured as he stressed the parties were aiming for a "safe and secure games for everybody; for the athletes, for all the delegations and most importantly also for the Chinese people." He immediately corrected himself, saying, "Japanese people."

    Interpreters at the event did not translate "Chinese people," but the words were picked up by news organizations and spread rapidly, particularly on social media. The Washington Post described it as adding to Bach's "already shaky public image in Japan."

    The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to Yasushi Terao, who researches slips of the tongue and is a University of Shizuoka professor and expert in phonology, the study of psycholinguistics and pronunciation structures.

    "The first sounds in the words 'Japanese' and 'Chinese' are similar, and the suffix 'ese' is grammatically the same. Because the accent is the same, too, it provides the conditions for an individual to easily choose the wrong word from the dictionary in their head. I think it's the kind of mistake that can't be helped," he said. For Terao, misspeaking is, under certain conditions, a regular occurrence, and the kind of mistake that IOC President Bach made was also "very commonplace."

    But he added that if a psychological cause is considered, then a different view can emerge. "There are times when the more you think you shouldn't say something, it accidentally just comes out," Terao said. "President Bach may have already been thinking about the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, but that's not something he could say in this situation.

    "It's possible that 'Chinese people' came from overthinking. But this is not something that can be proved, either. Looking at it linguistically, it seems to be a very ordinary mistake, but this is just one example of how we can also see it from a psychological perspective."

    On July 14, during a session with the press following a meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Bach's repeated reference to the "Japanese people" suggested he might have been keenly aware of the previous day's gaffe.

    On Twitter, a hashtag translating to "what Bach might do next" began trending in response to his remarks. More than 20,000 tweets relating to the hashtag were posted.

    (Japanese original by Hitoshi Kurasawa, Sports News Department)

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