Can anyone explain the use of "in what" in the following sentence?

In what some are seeing as a failure by Japan to live up to its responsibilities as a world power, only 11 refugees out of 5,000 applicants were granted asylum by Japan in 2014.

I'm thinking the first part before the comma is a nominal relative clause, and "in what" can be replaced with "the thing that". But there is no verb.

Any info will be much appreciated.

  • 'In a situation that ...' A shorter example: 'In what some see as a total surrender, Elbonia has declared peace on Mars.' – Edwin Ashworth Aug 19 '15 at 16:28
  • This what is effectively a "syntactic placeholder" for "the thing" [which some people see in a particular way]. The fact that it's preceded by In here has no special relevance - it would be exactly the same "placeholder" usage in, say, What you think is immaterial to me. – FumbleFingers Aug 19 '15 at 16:31
  • You're focussing on the wrong string. In what is not a constituent; it just happens to occur here. It breaks down into [in [what some are seeing as [a failure [to VP]]]], which means the same thing as in a failure to VP. The what is the marker for a headless relative (aka embedded question complement), which is a noun clause and therefore the object of the preposition in. Look for the constituents instead of random strings; no point in learning strings that aren't connected. – John Lawler Aug 19 '15 at 17:40

As mentioned in the comments, the "In what" is not here its own entity. The statement could have been expressed as

"In a failure by Japan to live up to its responsibilities..."

However, the author desired to express the idea that not everyone see this as a failure by Japan, rather that only some see this as a failure. Thus, they insert this idea into the expression as

"In [what some are seeing as] a failure by Japan to live up to its responsibilities..."

In this way, they can also distance themselves from the statement and establish impartiality by demonstrating that this is an opinion shared only by some and not necessarily by themselves. It is fairly common to come across this in news articles/reports where impartiality is a major component of credibility.

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