TOKYO — Japanese junior-high student just had to know: How does Bill Clinton speak so effortlessly to large crowds?
"My only advice," Mr. Clinton answered (before a prime-time TV audience watching the first ever "town hall" between a US president and Japanese citizens), "is to imagine no matter how many people are in your audience, that you're speaking to a few of your friends." Just "be yourself," he added.
Relaxed and approachable, Clinton might as well have been oblivious to the hammering he was set to endure half a world away, at the hands of nemesis Kenneth Starr. It also helped that, in a TV studio where Japanese sat politely with hands folded on their laps, he didn't have a lot to fret about.
The tensest moment came when a housewife in remote Osaka asked a question about whether Clinton's family had forgiven him for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
After he answered ("I believe they did, yes"), the host quickly suggested that they "change the topic."
While it can be hard to see beneath the veneer of politeness that encases this country, it's plain that many Japanese loved the openness and frankness that Clinton embodies. It's an altogether different approach for this society, where taxi drivers wear white gloves and protect their upholstery with sparkling white doilies.
"He speaks so well," enthused Maki Iwata, an office worker who had come from the nearby city of Yokohama to be part of the audience. "Japanese prime ministers can't talk about themselves, or carry themselves in the same way at all."
Even anchor Tetsuya Chikushi, one of Japan's most popular broadcasters, wondered after the taping: "Why don't we have this kind of thing with our prime ministers?"
Getting to know you
By now, getting up close and personal with the people has become a regular feature of a Clinton foreign tour, with China, Russia, and Argentina as earlier examples. The White House says it's a good way for the president to get a first-hand feel for a country. It's also a way to build popular support for the US agenda - especially if the leaders of the host country don't agree with it.
Clinton came to a Japan whose leaders are irritated by his direct, insistent calls for faster deregulation, more open markets, and aggressive implementation of banking and economic stimulus measures. By going directly to the Japanese people, however, the president can try to build support from the grass roots.
"Communication is the name of the game ... over the heads of the existing government and the foreign ministry," lamented one US official, who would rather see Clinton focus on strained government-to-government relations than put so much effort into a town hall.
But Japanese soaked up the president's attention.
"What a great idea," said Isao Takumi, who works for a Tokyo life insurance company. "It's great that the president has this attitude that he wants to listen to voices of real people," he said, striding past the imposing Industrial Bank of Japan on his lunchtime break.
Mind you, "I don't think what people tell him will necessarily be implemented in terms of policies, but still, it's a plus that he's listening."
A few minutes earlier, another financial services worker, Katsuhito Nakagawa, called Clinton's television chat nothing less than "epoch-making."
What Japanese like about Clinton
Whether in this city's good-stuff-cheap marketplace or the starched-shirt corridors of its financial district, Japanese again and again praised Clinton as energetic, direct, and a strong leader. He's a sharp contrast, they said, to their own prime minister, who bears the nicknames "Mr. Boring" and "Mr. Lack of Vocabulary" (for his repetition of vague generalizations).
In the hour-long televised special report, which was scheduled to air during prime time on one of Japan's most popular and well-respected news shows, participants were not shy in their questions.
Sitting on silver bar stools with black leather seats, they wanted to know everything about the president, including what his wife cooked him for dinner. He didn't get into who does the cooking, but did identify his favorite food as chicken enchiladas.
After the redirection following the Lewinsky question, the queries proceeded along more traditional lines - the trade imbalance between the two countries, American troops in Japan, nuclear weapons, and US-China relations.
Ever the diplomat
Clinton took care to encourage the Japanese at a time when their economy is shrinking, and to compliment them as examples of hard workers who place a premium on education. He emphasized "the enduring nature of our democratic partnership."
But in closing remarks, he implored his audience to "support your government in aggressively" moving forward with reforms.
While Japan's leadership might not have liked the urging, Japanese acknowledged the president has a point.
"Fundamentally, what America is saying is true - we're not open and we're not transparent," said insurance employee Takumi.
He and other Japanese citizens interviewed on the streets of Tokyo suggested that Japan's prime minister might be better off if he took Clinton's advice.
* Staff writer Cameron W. Barr in Tokyo contributed to this report.