Just as its book title states, "Honyaku Dekinai Sekai no Kotoba" (The world's untranslatable expressions), there are certain utterances that are difficult to translate into other languages.

One example cited is "tsundoku," which Japanese use to denote hoarding books and other reading materials in one's home without reading them.

It certainly is no easy task for a translator to adequately convey the hoarder's sense of guilt for piling up books without devouring them, while wanting at the same time for a rainy day to read them with appreciation.

Another hard-to-translate Japanese expression, "sontaku," appeared in the headline of a recent article in the British newspaper The Financial Times.

Its meaning was explained as follows: "Sontaku refers to the pre-emptive, placatory following of an order that has not been given."

Even Japanese people rarely use this word in their daily lives. But "sontaku" has made a sudden appearance in the lexicon with the unfolding of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal.

The Osaka-based educational corporation acquired state-owned property for a fraction of its appraised value. There are suspicions this came about because the bureaucrats involved in the transaction practiced sontaku to accommodate what they believed were the wishes of the Prime Minister's Office, as well as those of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie, who had been named honorary principal of an elementary school to be constructed on the site and run by Moritomo Gakuen.

Those bureaucrats in question were attached to the Finance Ministry, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, and the Osaka prefectural government. It is reasonable to suspect that all these offices practiced sontaku.

When we search for the original meaning of the word, sontaku means to "conjecture," "surmise" or "speculate." But since when has it come to denote pandering to people in positions of authority and committing shady deeds as a result?

I just hope this change does not go hand-in-hand with any tendency in society to reject healthy argument and dissent, and drown out voices of reason.

"The Book of Songs," a classic collection of ancient Chinese poetry, contains a passage where the expression sontaku is used. And this passage can be translated to mean, "If someone has an evil heart, I will examine it carefully," according to Tadahisa Ishikawa, the author of "Shinshaku Kanbun Taikei" (New interpretation of compendium of Chinese classics).

From this, it appears that sontaku originally denoted the ability to see through someone's evil purposes.

The poem goes on to liken this ability to that of a good dog that can snare a quick and crafty rabbit.

The images this poem conjures up are quite different from what the Japanese expression sontaku has come to mean today.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 1

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.