Friday, July 28, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Japan First Lady Akie Abe's keynote in English

Perhaps you do not expect a keynote address from a high-level international symposium on coastal resilience, a climate change issue, to make the cut for Famous Speech Friday, even if it is given by the wife of the Prime Ministerr of Japan, Akie Abe.

But this 2014 speech, given at the Ford Foundation in New York, recently made headlines after U.S. President Donald Trump gave an interview to the New York Times and brought up his dinner partner at a G20 summit of world--and her English skills. From the interview transcript:
TRUMP: So, I was seated next to the wife of Prime Minister Abe [Shinzo Abe of Japan], who I think is a terrific guy, and she’s a terrific woman, but doesn’t speak English.
HABERMAN: Like, nothing, right? Like zero?
TRUMP: Like, not “hello.”
HABERMAN: That must make for an awkward seating.
TRUMP: Well, it’s hard, because you know, you’re sitting there for——
TRUMP: So the dinner was probably an hour and 45 minutes.
Where does the speech come in? Within hours of the interview being posted, the speech--delivered in fluent English, except for the short reading of a poem in Japanese--surfaced on the Internet. This led observers to the conclusion that the First Lady of Japan may have pretended not to speak English to avoid interacting with Trump.

But Women in the World pointed out that Abe had already met in more intimate settings with the President and First Lady of the U.S. on a state visit to America, having numerous conversations with each of them. Since neither Trump speaks Japanese, we might conclude that everyone spoke English. If so, Trump has managed to not only lie about her English skills, but to dismiss and silence the first lady of Japan by suggesting she is not the multilingual leader that she really is.

As for Abe, some observers suggest the snub during dinner was intentional, and a form of "nasty woman" pushback against Trump--speaking, whether during dinner or into a microphone, being a choice women can exercise. From The Guardian:
But these smaller acts of defiance – whether a handshake ignored or a conversation avoided – are significant too, performed as they are by women on the world stage. Such snubs are not the actions of mutely servile political wives but sentient, ideologically engaged women who are making their feelings known in the best way that they can.
Laying aside for the moment why a U.S. president needs to insult the wife of another world leader, what about the talk? Speaking from the perspective of a nation that experienced a major tsunami, Abe talked about the sea rise and the proposals to build gigantic 48-foot-tall sea walls, discussing the pros and cons of the proposal without advocating for one or the other. She advocated a preference for balanced approaches that dealt not only with the concerns of the moment, but future impacts. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Make use of poetry: Abe takes the time to read a short poem in Japanese, "so you can sense its distinct rhythm," since the Japanese language is nothing if not rhythmic at its heart. She then translates it as "The forest is longing for the sea/The sea is longing for the forest." It's a moment of connection and color in this speech, something you can emulate in your next speech. I'll be adding this one to our list of 7 famous poetic speeches by women.
  • Connect the poetry to the policy: The sea walls, of course, would separate the forest from the sea. Early in her speech, she describes Kensennuma, an area hard hit by the tsunami. Before the disaster, it was known for its seafood. Abe noted "the fish and shellfish, fresh and tasty as they may be, are dependent upon the land, or more precisely, the nourishment flowing downstream into the inlet from the mountain forests. Without them, the woods in the mountains, the water in the inlet cannot become enriched, and cannot grow its famous oysters. In Kesennuma at one point there emerged a group of oyster farmers who take the sea-mountain interplay so seriously that they took to the shore and began planting trees in the mountains."
  • Have a non-standard start and finish: So often, our public officials are talked into pro forma, typical, throat-clearing starts and mundane endings for their speeches. Not so here. Abe begins with "Among the many problems Japan faces, there is only one, at least to tell you about today." Yes, that gets your attention. And her ending--"Please give us your wisdom and ideas"--is perfect for a conference of experts. Starts and endings are places to be strong, to give emphasis, and to alert the audience of what's ahead in your speech and in the discussion to follow. Don't waste them on trivialities.
In short, it was a poetic, nuanced, smart policy fluent English. 

Abe's remarks begin at about the 2:18 mark in the video below:

Keynote Address - Her Excellency- Madame Akie Abe, First Lady of Japan

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