There has been much talk in Japan recently about the imminent danger posed by an “overshoot,” a word used with no Japanese translation, little context and an apparent disregard for the English language, baffling English and Japanese speakers alike.
Of the many Japanese politicians, experts and journalists who have adopted the word as part of their virus lexicon, few seem to have taken a moment to ponder what it actually means or where it comes from.
In normal contexts, to overshoot means to shoot or pass over or beyond a target, like when an aircraft flies beyond a runway while trying to land.
According to the health ministry, “overshoot” means an explosive spike in coronavirus infections in which the number of patients doubles within two to three days. Officials fear “overshoot” will lead to the collapse of the health care system.
In Tokyo, the number of infections has grown more than sixfold over the past two weeks, but government officials maintain that an “overshoot” has not occurred here or anywhere else in the country.
The first person to publicly use this new term in Japan is thought to be Shigeru Omi, a member of the government’s coronavirus panel and president of the Japan Community Health Organization. Omi, who was also director of the Western Pacific Regional Office of the World Health Organization, mentioned the term repeatedly during a news conference in February.
However, it’s difficult to pinpoint who actually coined the term. One member of the panel credited Hiroshi Nishiura, an epidemiological researcher from Hokkaido University who was recently enlisted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to trace coronavirus infections in the capital to their point of origin.
The term doesn’t seem to be used commonly outside Japan, if at all. After an exhaustive search, however, one professor claims to have found its point of origin.
Kumiko Torikai, professor emeritus at Rikkyo University and an expert in communication and foreign languages, said the earliest reference she could find was a February news conference by Chris Witty, England’s chief medical adviser.
Torikai said that, at the end of the news conference, after the last question had been asked and the cameras were being turned off, Witty seemed to have mumbled the word in an offhand way.
Within days, “overshoot” began appearing in headlines throughout Japan.
Now, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike warning that Japan is on the verge of an “overshoot” on national TV nearly every day, the verb continues to be warped into an incendiary medical term by Japanese politicians, academics and the media.
“During a crisis like this, when it’s crucial for people to understand what’s going on, for experts to use confusing terminology is simply a failure of communication,” Torikai said, adding that using native Japanese for the general populace and a simplified form for foreign speakers would be much more logical.
Torikai also said other English words and phrases now being adopted in Japan are confusing as well. Overseas, for example, the term “community transmission,” referring to the untraceable spread of the virus, is on the rise, whereas Japanese almost exclusively stick with “cluster,” the term for a localized outbreak. Other English terms, like pandemic and lockdown, are also unfamiliar to Japanese, Torikai said.
“All of these words — overshoot, cluster, pandemic, lockdown — have Japanese translations that mean the exact same thing,” she said. “Perhaps politicians were trying to downplay the crisis or use English words because people in this country think they sound cool. Either way, now is not the time for word play.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.
Your news needs your support
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.