POINT OF VIEW/ Motoo Unno: Door-to-door visits the starting point of American democracy

January 12, 2013


I'm very proud of this photograph of me with U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.

I was finally able to meet with him in May, when I was helping with his campaign by canvassing door to door. By way of greeting, I shouted one of the Obama camp's slogans, "I'm fired up!"

I told him, "I am from Japan and doing canvassing!"

Obama broke into a broad smile and shouted, "Canvassing! Canvassing!!" It was an exciting moment when he placed his hand on my shoulder.

I came to the United States because I was interested in Obama when he ran for president in 2008.

A U.S. president must communicate with 200 million voters spread across a vast land, from different racial and religious backgrounds.

Because Obama was born to a Kenyan father and grew up in a slightly different culture than many Americans, I was interested in how he would communicate with voters and campaign for the presidency. It was a perfect subject for a student of cross-cultural communication like me, so I joined the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012.

I may be slightly different from other researchers in that I prefer to get information directly from the field, rather than staying in my office. I believe in on-the-spot research, just as a journalist might believe in on-the-spot reporting.

In 2010, I attended a U.S. congressional hearing on Toyota Motor Corp.'s vehicle recalls, where I was caught on TV right behind Akio Toyoda, the company president.

On another occasion, I asked Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, how he felt about political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa.

Japanese reporters were surprised when I abruptly put my arm around his shoulder and asked the question.

I do not have any connections with Obama, and I joined his latest campaign without prior arrangements. I worked at his election office in Virginia, where talking about the local baseball team helped me fit in with the campaign staff.

Well-financed Republicans were then mounting a massive negative ad campaign, and the Obama camp was focusing on door-to-door visits to counter it.

I was told to knock on doors, rain or shine. The temperature sometimes topped 40 degrees (about 105 degrees F). Some people I met were Republicans who literally hate Obama.

In this country, you could have a gun pointed at you if something goes wrong. I was routinely told, "Get out of here," or "Don't come back."

But I held on with my smile and my Japanese-English even when I was chased away like a dog—or chased off by a dog.

I knocked on 4,200 doors, although 1,000 homes would have been enough for my research. I was filled with an uplifting feeling.

There are things you cannot understand unless you immerse yourself in something. The winner of the 2012 election was decided not by economic or foreign policy but by messages that have a direct bearing on people's lives.

For example, we told female voters that contraceptive pills would no longer be covered by insurance if Mitt Romney won. Women were angry, feeling that issues about their body were being intruded upon.

Elderly Republicans criticized medical insurance reform as socialistic. But they listened to me when I talked about medical expenses because they were worried about increased financial burdens.

I was able to hear such voices of U.S. citizens through door-to-door visits. The experience has greatly contributed to my research.

Door-to-door visits, or canvassing, are the starting point of democracy. Japan must review its ban on them.

I will return to Japan in spring and teach what I learned to my students. I will have them put on the T-shirt I wore during my door-to-door visits so that they can feel what on-the-spot research is like.

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Motoo Unno is a professor of cross-cultural communication at Meiji University in Tokyo and a visiting scholar at the Intercultural Management Institute at American University in Washington, D.C. Unno has written books on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, recalls by Toyota Motor Corp. and other issues.

(This article is based on an interview by Hirotsugu Mochizuki.)

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Motoo Unno with Barack and Michelle Obama (Provided by Motoo Unno)

Motoo Unno with Barack and Michelle Obama (Provided by Motoo Unno)

  • Motoo Unno with Barack and Michelle Obama (Provided by Motoo Unno)
  • Motoo Unno (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

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