Cancel Olympics

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Recently published in the Wall Street Journal:

"Tokyo’s Anti-Olympic Movement Ask: Why Haven’t the Games Been Canceled? The Japanese public remains opposed to the Tokyo Olympics as coronavirus cases surge across the country", by Alastair Gale, WSJ, April 14, 2021

The large sign with red and black lettering on the right says:

chūshi da!
Tōkyō Gorin


Tokyo Olympics

The small sign at the bottom right with black lettering has "Olympics" written in katakana:  Orinpikku オリンピック.

This prompted me to ask several questions:

Is there an important difference in nuance (nyuansu ニュアンス) between chūshi 中止 and sasupendo サスペンド?  and torikeshi 取消 / 取り消し?  All of them mean roughly to prevent something planned from going forward.

Wouldn't the exact rendering of the English "cancel" be kyanseru キャンセル?

Which is more common for "Olympics" — Orinpikku オリンピック or Gorin 五輪?

Any chance the demonstrators would prefer Sinitic "chūshi da 中止だ" over English "kyanseru キャンセル" because their sentiments align with those of China?

Incidentally, the Japanese term for "Olympics" — Gorin 五輪 ("Five Rings") — is very descriptive and memorable.  A riff off of Miyamoto Musashi's famous The Book of Five Rings (ca. 1643) on kenjutsu ("swordsmanship") and the martial arts in general?

Replies to my questions and remarks by Nathan Hopson:

1. 中止 vs キャンセル vs. 取消

There's a lot of overlap, but my impression is that 中止 tends to be for public events, キャンセル for private plans.


予約をキャンセルする (yoyaku o kyanseru suru): cancel a reservation (for a flight, hotel, etc.)
生産中止 (seisan chūshi): discontinuation of production
計画を中止する (keikaku o chūshi suru): cancel a plan (for a new road, business, etc.)

中止 also fits better in headlines and signs, and feels stronger and more official (just a feeling, so ymmv). It's unlikely to mean infiltration by Uncle Xi's minions, but I suppose anything is possible.

取消 is often for "Undo," as in when you misclick or mistype something. The nuance is more like "take back." One good example of this is 内定取消 (naitei torikeshi), the cancelation of hiring offers.

2. サスペンド

Never seen this used. 延期 (enki) [VHM:  "postpone; delay"] would be the most likely word for this context.

3. オリンピック vs 五輪

五輪 is used in print and on screen because it's more compact. The abbreviation was invented by a reporter (or editor, I forget) for the Yomiuri Shinbun in the 30s, and it stuck. Some of that may have also been the Asianism of the time, but mostly it was the utility.

I don't have access to Yomiuri from home (because it's the 21st century and a pandemic and I have a VPN, but licensing is still very 19th century here), but the first usage I can find in the  headlines of the paper's major competitor, Asahi, is from 1936. The image below is from October 29 of that year; the first usage in the body of an article was probably from August of that year. Note that it says 五輪大會 (Gorin Taikai).

The oldest example of 五輪大會 in the National Diet Library's online database is from 1937; even here it's used along with the katakana オリンピック in a book called オリムピツク大会迄に市民は何をなすべきか ("What citizens must do between now and the Olympics").

Chapter 3 is:

五輪大會を目指して (Gorin Taikai o mezashite, Towards the Olympics)

FWIW, my impression is that nobody reads 五輪 as gorin.


In print: 五輪相 (Gorinshō, i.e. the minister in charge of the Games)
When newscasters want to read that same information aloud, they say: オリンピック担当大臣 (Orinpikku Tantō Daijin).

We're still a ways from 言文一致…

[VHM:  We've been talking a lot about Meiji Japan’s genbun itchi 言文一致 (lit., "unification of the spoken and written language") movement during the last few years, especially again in recent weeks, for which see the "Selected readings" below.

Suggestion from a colleague:  "Don't cancel… just postpone to 2022… and then see which venue gets more attendees… Beijing or Tokyo?

Finally, which sounds more natural to you:  "Movement Ask" or "Movement Asks"?  (see the headline above)

Selected readings


Genbun itchi:

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 11:25 am

    Just as it's better graphic design in a context like a sign or headline to render "Olympics" as two kanji (assuming they're not so rare that many might not instantly know them) rather than six katakana characters, it's better graphic design to render "cancel" as two kanji rather than five katakana. I have no idea about the choice between 中止 and 取消, which may have slightly different semantic scopes or "feels", although I'm a bit skeptical that the remote Sinitic origin of the former would be the key factor in the choice.

    The usual parallel in English is that sometimes but not always the Latin-or-French-origin lexeme (equivalent loosely to the Sinitic-origin stratum in the Japanese lexicon) is the posher and/or stuffier one than the Saxon analogue, making the choice between them one of register, but "cancel" is a perfect example of the "not always," i.e. it's an English lexeme of ultimate Latin-via-Norman origin but it doesn't currently sound at all out of place in a fairly slangy/vernacular register.

    By the way, when I clicked on the Wall St. Journal link, the headline on their website now says "Asks" instead of "Ask," which suggests that "Ask" was an error that they eventually noticed and fixed

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 11:39 am

    From Frank Chance:

    "FWIW, my impression is that nobody reads 五輪 as gorin. "

    NHK announcers, at the very least, frequently say "gorintaikai" and even "gorinchûshi" as in the question put to PM Suga at yesterday's press conference.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 11:39 am

    From Nathan Hopson:

    Thanks! It's been years since I've had a TV, so I guess I'm misremembering this.

  4. Krogerfoot said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 12:18 pm

    The paired signs are idiomatic and natural English and Japanese. Rendering “Cancel the Tokyo Olympics” as 東京五輪をキャンセル or something like that is a foreigner’s stilted Japanese because, as Nathan Hopson notes, kyanseru is “undo” (glossed by Japanese dictionaries as 取り消し (torikeshi, “take-erase”). It makes it sound like the speaker thinks canceling the Olympics is a matter of pressing a key, whereas 中止 chūshi more appropriately expresses the idea of bringing to bear efforts to halt something already underway. To put it another way, if you kyanseru a wedding, you’re just changing the date or venue of the event, but chūshi would mean you’re calling the whole thing off.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 12:30 pm

    From Stu Cvrk:

    The Japanese should dispense free vitamin D and Ivermectin (which, after all, was invented in Japan) to all Olympics attendees, including athletes – and publicly announce that beforehand.

  6. Daniel Tse said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 12:31 pm

    The choice of 中止 here is undoubtedly influenced by 中止だ中止, the graffiti written on the wall of the building site of the 2020 Olympics in Akira, which presciently happened to match our reality as well.

  7. Jim Breen said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 5:14 pm

    Checking the relative frequencies of オリンピック and 五輪 in the big Google n-gram database I see they are about equally common. The actual ratio is about 3:2.

    FWIW the term サスペンド (suspension; the verb is サスペンドする) is largely confined to computing contexts

  8. Bathrobe said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 11:27 pm

    My two cents.

    The sign at bottom right probably says something like オリンピックより命のほうが大事 (or 大切) Orinpikku yori inochi no hō ga daiji (taisetsu) 'Lives are more important than the Olympics'.

    五輪 is certainly read as gorin. It's compact and official-sounding but it's a written expression and it's not the normal word that people would use.

    Agree with Krogerfoot here. 中止 chūshi is used for events or plans. 中止になった chūshi ni natta is the normal way of indicating that an event was cancelled. It's not a particularly strange choice and not particularly new. I don't think there is any influence from Chinese at all. キャンセルされた kyanseru sareta sounds like a translation from English, although キャンセルになった kyanseru ni natta might be better.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 11:30 pm

    Incidentally, while the sign says "Cancel the Olympics", "Call off the Olympics" is possibly more natural in spoken English.

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    April 17, 2021 @ 1:07 am

    Maybe ask was a mistake for asks, or maybe there was a British headline-writer. Plural verb agreement with collective subjects is pretty normal in BrEng. (AmEng wants a singular verb, but is happy with they/their – I could imagine something like Tokyo's anti-Olympic movement holds their biggest demonstration yet in AmEng.)

  11. Cervantes said,

    April 17, 2021 @ 7:27 am

    Bob, my interpretation was that "ask" is intended as a noun. I.e. in headline style, "The ask [of the movement] is . . . " Ask as a noun is business jargon, which is why you see it in the WSJ.

  12. Batchman said,

    April 17, 2021 @ 3:49 pm

    Noted the growing trend of making verbs into nouns, especially "ask" and "spend", coming from the business world. I'm tempted to say "any verb can be nouned," but that doesn't quite work as well as the reverse. Perhaps "any verb can undergo a nounify," if "nounify" were an actual word.

  13. Graeme said,

    April 18, 2021 @ 12:33 am

    AustEng speaker here. Our club/team/movement asks/plays.
    Yet we could use either are or is with those nouns.
    My guess is this reflects intuition that the active verb involves the entity acting as a singularity. Whereas the verb to be describes the entity, which seems multiple at least to insiders.

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