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Saturday, Feb. 28, 2009

Power of words eludes politicians

Japan's sloganeering leaders are tone deaf to the possibilities of persuasive speech


Staff writer

Japanese prime ministers aren't known for the impact they make with their words, or straight talk with the public.

News photo
Study in contrast: Prime Minister Taro Aso meets with President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday. AP PHOTO

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had his simplistic, short-lived "beautiful country" slogan, which his successor, Yasuo Fukuda, criticized, but then followed up by repeatedly stressing, in equal vague measure, the importance of "the public viewpoint" — hardly the stuff of enduring inspiration.

And now we have Taro Aso, whose words have indeed made headlines, but not for their greatness. He is best known for stumbling over the pronunciation of kanji and his flip-flops on key policies.

Sociolinguist Shoji Azuma said most politicians don't understand that words are a key tool to swaying public opinion to their policy goals.

"Politicians lack the awareness that words can touch a person's heart or influence politics. They have never valued the importance of words," said Azuma, 53, a professor at both Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and the University of Utah. He has analyzed the words of past prime ministers and key lawmakers, and studied their habits.

Prime ministers like Aso, whose public support rate is nose-diving, tend to use honorific language that elevates them above the public, Azuma said. Such language is considered condescending, and instead alienates the listener.

"Honorific language was originally used to signal a difference in (social station); they are power words," Azuma said, noting that in the United States, distinguished leaders would employ a common-man approach and try to convey a sense of solidarity.

"In Japan, people focus on being articulate and logical instead of being engaging and expressive — but that style is (obsolete)," he said.

One politician who stands out for being able to understand the influential power of words is U.S. President Barack Obama.

Not only have Obama's words captured the hearts of Americans, but his speeches have crossed the Pacific to Japan, where they have been taken up in classrooms and filled bookstore shelves.

Madoka Hoshi, a 19-year-old college student interning in the office of Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Kan Suzuki, said Obama's speeches have made a deep impression on her.

"Maybe it isn't good to compare Obama with Aso, but when I heard Obama's speech, it felt like he was talking in his own words — and they moved me," said Hoshi, a business and commerce major at Keio University. "Meanwhile, Aso seems to be reading a script."

In fact, Hoshi is pretty much on the mark. Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, noted that Aso's speeches are written by bureaucrats, whereas Obama's speeches are written by his speechwriters.

Shown repeatedly on TV are scenes of Obama making eye contact with his audiences; meanwhile, Aso is shown looking down and reading from a prepared text.

"Obama's speechwriter has been with him throughout his whole campaign, writing the speeches as if he were Obama, using Obama's words," Kawakami said. "But in Japan, the speeches are all written by bureaucrats."

Behind this difference in style lies a fundamental difference in systems of government, Kawakami said. Thousands of political appointees change with a new administration in the U.S., while in Japan the majority of government officials remain in place regardless of who the new leader is.

Prime ministers are handed drafts of speeches cobbled together by the entrenched bureaucrats.

"The prime minister's policy speech is basically not a vehicle for Aso to explain who he is and what he wants to do, his policy vision," Kawakami said. "Based on a parliamentary system in which the prime minister is head of the administration, the prime minister cannot give a policy speech that ignores the bureaucrats."

Yet, there are ways to make an impression, said Kawakami, giving the example of the ever-popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Koizumi is generally regarded as charismatic — a strong leader capable of punchy sound bites.

Sociolinguist Azuma called Koizumi living proof that charisma can be an acquired trait. He reckons charisma does not stem directly from one's character, but instead is based on actions taken and the public response.

Koizumi, for example, declared he would "destroy" the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and set about shifting the power balance from factional to party politics.

Koizumi played on the protests of LDP members and supporters to set the postal system privatization in motion by appealing to voters to give his allies an electoral mandate.

"(The LDP) has a chance because Koizumi proved that the power of words affects people in Japan, too," Azuma said. "The key is charisma — because it can be acquired."

It is a trait Aso desperately needs. The latest Kyodo News survey showed public support for his Cabinet had sunk to 13.4 percent, but other polls have put the figure lower.

Keio student Hoshi, who hopes to become a civil servant, said Aso lacks leadership.

"I think Aso is too forgiving," Hoshi said, referring to his refusal to sack Shoichi Nakagawa as finance minister after his apparent drunken display at a news conference following a Group of Seven meeting in Rome a couple of weeks ago.

"It seems to me like Aso is just waiting for things to happen — but I wish he would understand that he is in a position to make things happen," she said.

Azusa Fuji, a 21-year-old Meiji University student interning at LDP lawmaker Tsukasa Akimoto's office, said she cannot trust Aso as a prime minister.

Both Fuji and Hoshi are on a two-month internship at lawmakers' offices, introduced through dot-jp, the nation's largest nonprofit organization running a student internship program with lawmakers.

"Aso just seems unreliable — I think a leader should be more dignified," Fuji said. "And it is easy to lose trust in someone like Aso who often retracts statements and keeps changing (his position) again and again."



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