Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Japanese sway to Obamameter

The Times revisits the Japanese passion for Obama's speeches, which have become a staple of the country's multi-billion dollar English language instruction industry. While the CDs, books, etc. based on the speeches presumably break down the language, something nonverbal is at at work in their selling power:

But there are probably a large number of buyers who do not really possess the basic English skills to understand his speech, said Yuzo Yamamoto, an editor at Asahi Press. Since the sales took off, he has received postcards from readers saying they had been touched by Mr. Obama’s speeches, but “those same people have said they were moved even though they didn’t understand English well,” he said. “Some even said the only phrase they caught was, ‘Yes, we can.’ They said they were in tears nonetheless.”

Mr. Yamamoto said there was a sincerity about Mr. Obama’s speaking style that listeners could perceive phonetically, combined with a delivery that was almost musical.

I don't know what's more uncanny: Japanese enthusiasm or Obama's rhetorical power. I tried to capture some of its rhythmic and symbolic wellsprings the day after his election:
But Obama's speech is also "poetic" in a more primal sense, in its rhythms and pacing. Mostly it's a matter of strong repetition. The sentences are often long, with clause piled on clause. But those clauses are bound together by parallel structure -- most often by anaphora, the repetition of beginning words. There's really nothing fancy about it: anaphora is almost his only grammatical figure...A long Obama sentence is like a row of Doric columns. The mind follows without fatigue, buttressed by the graceful repetitive structure.
I am as susceptible myself as the customers in Utako Sakai's beauty parlor.

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