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Japan Learning from President Obama's Oratory

Last updated on August 12, 2013


I purchased  the “Collection of Obama Speeches” yesterday. The CD has proven to be a hit in Japan but I am curious to see how Japan’s political circle responds/reacts to the inaugural speech and to the new face of America. I wonder if any Nakasone-ish type comments will hit the press?

The Shukan Asahi reports that many people might have been disappointed by the historical inaugural address by the first African-American President of the United States. President Barack Obama told Americans in calm tone about ‘a new time to bear responsibility,’ but he avoided using the kind of strong rhetoric of his campaign. Has President Obama lost his oratory skills?

On January 22, the day after Barack Obama took the oath of office as president of the United States, a lecture titled “Explaining U.S. President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address” was held at the Diet Members’ Building in the capital district of Nagatacho, Tokyo, as if to emulate the fever of enthusiasm that has swept across the United States. The lecture was sponsored by the think tank of the major opposition Democratic Party (DPJ). The hall was filled to capacity. DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama delivered a speech at the outset of the lecture, saying that he was impressed by the President’s inaugural address being full of confidence. He drew laughter from participants when he said: “I feel ashamed when we Japanese politicians are compared with him.”However, the general evaluation is that Obama’s inaugural address was less impressive than the speeches he had delivered during the presidential campaign.

Tsuda College Associate Professor Takeshi Suzuki, the lecturer at the event, said: “Some say that his address was disappointing. But that’s the way it goes.” What he meant is, for example, when Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister in April 2001, having used such words as ‘reform’ and “destroy the LDP” during the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential campaign, his policy speech was gentle. In a similar fashion, it is unreasonable to anticipate the reappearance of the phrase, “Yes, we can,” in an inaugural address, which requires formalities.

Suzuki continued: “Although Mr. Obama has changed U.S. history, 40% of Americans voted for the Republican candidate. The role required for his inaugural address was to unite the country, which was divided during the campaign.”

Nevertheless, it is true that some U.S. presidents have delivered stirring inaugural addresses. In his inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear.” In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

There were not many impressive phrases like that in President Obama’s inaugural address. However, Obama’s style remained true. In the part calling on Americans to make efforts to achieve their dreams, he used alliteration, juxtaposing the word ‘price’ paid by the people and ‘promise’ made by the government. He compared the rocky road to secure freedom and democracy with a journey.

Suzuki, admitting that he is an “Obama maniac,” said:

“He has indicated he will follow a policy of cooperating with the international community, and not follow the Bush administration’s unilateralism. President Obama has revealed his intention to seek harmony with the Muslim world. What he advocates will become the key to his administration. As he said in his inaugural address: ‘The old hatreds shall someday pass;’ and ‘As the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.’ I think there is a possibility that his inaugural address will be highly praised in the future.”

Yasuharu Ishizawa, professor of political science at Gakushuin Women’s College, agreed: “Mr. Obama might have demonstrated [in his inaugural speech] a shift from the mode of the presidential campaign, in which he spoke about his ideals, to the reality of having to lead his administration.”

Ishizawa noted that since it is not that simple to deal with the reality that needs to be overcome, Obama did not use slogans from the presidential campaign.

Reiterates the word we

A crowd of 1.8 million people assembled in Washington to watch Obama’s swearing-in ceremony, outpacing the 1.2 million who gathered for Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration. President Obama’s ability to express himself has not weakened, having brought 1.8 million people to the capital.

Makiko Haraga, part-time lecturer at Tokyo Institute of Technology, who is well acquainted with Obama’s speeches, said:

“Mr. Obama is fond of Shakespeare’s works, so his inaugural address had the flavor of literature that drew fully from the strength of his rhyming words and poetic phrasing. It fascinated me.”

She explained the features of Obama’s speeches as follows:

First, Obama uses the word ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. He had frequently used ‘we’ before he used the wording ‘we the people,’ which U.S. presidents have to use in their inaugural addresses. His purpose is to gain favorable responses from audiences.

Second, he repeats the same phrases as follows:

For us, they picked up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops, and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip, and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed.

Third, he gives the impression by using contrasting words such as that:

“We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

“Your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

Fourth, he attracts people with his experiences and scene setting, such as this remark about himself:

“A man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

As many as 400,000 copies of “Collection of Obama Speeches” on CD, which the publishing company Asahi Press put on sale last fall as a teaching aid, have been sold. According to Yuzo Yamamoto, head of the third editorial department of Asahi Press, the teaching material was bought by a wide range of people aged 14 through 93. Most of them say that they bought it just to listen to it, even though they were unable to understand it in English.

Asahi Press sold 20,000 copes of the teaching material called “Collection of Best Speeches by American Presidents,” which was put on sale three years ago. Sales are flowing due to the oratory talent of Obama. His audio edition of Dreams from My Father won a 2006 Grammy award for the best spoken word album. The publishing company will release in late January “The Inaugural Address of Barack Obama” on CD, trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

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