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Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009

Magnetic speaker's words resonate with masses


Staff writer

When Tsutomu Toyama first read Barack Obama's November victory speech, he was deeply impressed, both by the choice of language and the message conveyed.

Books on new U.S. President Barack Obama are on display at the Yaesu Book Center
Good read: Books on new U.S. President Barack Obama are on display at the Yaesu Book Center in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

"The vocabulary Obama used was not very difficult and his message was very clear," said Toyama, an English teacher at Aletheia Shonan High School in Kanagawa Prefecture.

"I felt that he structured the speech in a way that everyone in the 'melting pot' could understand. It was also interesting that he used 'we' as the subject rather than 'I,' " he said.

Toyama did not follow the U.S. presidential election closely but said the praise for Obama's speech led him and his colleagues at the high school to read the text in English.

"I'm really looking forward to reading his inauguration speech," he said prior to Obama's swearing-in Tuesday.

Toyama joined numerous Japanese — and many others worldwide — who were eager to hear and read Obama's inaugural address.

To be sure, becoming the first black American president and being chosen to lead the world's superpower through such difficult times is enough to make people interested in and curious about Obama.

But since he won the election, many Japanese have been especially charmed by reading the speeches he made during the campaign.

Bookstores are enjoying brisk sales of various publications about Obama that have flooded the market in the past few months. They have even set up special sections dedicated to Obama-related books.

Selling particularly well are books compiling Obama's speeches.

The most popular is "The Speeches of Barack Obama" by Asahi Press, which sells for ¥1,000 and includes a CD containing Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, his candidacy acceptance speech last August and his victory speech in November.

Since hitting the market Nov. 20, it has already sold 400,000 copies, the publisher said.

Containing the original English texts and their translations, along with explanations of the vocabulary, the book is essentially marketed as material to help readers study English.

At the Yaesu Book Center near Tokyo Station, the book has dominated the best-seller lists, holding the top spot for four consecutive weeks in December before dropping to second place earlier this month.

"Language education materials have never held the top position. This is a very unique phenomenon," said Kazumi Kawashima, a spokeswoman of the Yaesu Book Center.

Maruzen Book Store, on the other side of Tokyo Station, said it is seeing a similar trend. The store is selling some 30 copies a day at its flagship store in Marunouchi Oazo, according to a Maruzen spokeswoman.

Presidential speeches are considered good material to improve listening skills, according to Yuzo Yamamoto of Asahi Press. Not only is the structure clear, but they are delivered in such a way that the message is transmitted to as wide an audience as possible, he said.

"Among them, Obama's speeches excel, both in content and delivery," Yamamoto said.

It is interesting to note that the book's readership is not only made up of English students. Some readers simply enjoy listening to the charismatic Obama's voice on CD and reading the translation of his speeches, Yamamoto said.

"We've been getting feedback from readers who said that even though they didn't understand English, Obama's tone of voice and his delivery were enough to convey a positive message that touched their hearts," he said. "Some said Obama gave them goose bumps."

At the same time, many readers have lamented that there is no Japanese politician who can capture hearts the way Obama does, Yamamoto said. "Some said they wanted Japanese politicians to read his speeches."

CosmoPier Publishing Co., which put out a one-time magazine compiling Obama's speeches and describing his road to the White House, is also turning a healthy profit. The magazine, Obama: The Era of Change, hit the market in early December priced at ¥1,380 and has already sold 31,000 copies.

This sales rate is rarely experienced by similar current affairs magazines aimed at people learning English, reflecting the high interest in Obama, said CosmoPier's Yuko Sakamoto, who edited the magazine.

Both the Asahi Press and CosmoPier have plans to publish books about inaugural speeches later this month.

Meanwhile, high school English teachers have been using Obama's speeches in their classes.

Hamamatsu Konan High School in Shizuoka Prefecture in November used The Japan Times story on Obama's victory speech as material for seniors.

In addition to his smooth delivery and plain vocabulary, Obama's reference to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. allowed teachers to extend the class to American history, school representative Yukiko Kuramoto said.

U.S. presidents and other political figures were never used for English education material before Obama, Kuramoto said.

"Well, (former) President (George W.) Bush may have gained some attention for the (English) errors he made," she said. "But Obama is praised among so many, and I think a lot of teachers realize that his speeches have educational significance."



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