As the コロナ禍 (korona-ka, coronavirus disaster) continues to plague populations around the world, the 記者会見 (kisha kaiken, press conference) has emerged as must-see TV for many.

One aspect of such conferences has been listening to English-speaking world leaders use the language of war when discussing the 新型コロナウイルス (shingata koronauirusu, novel coronavirus). U.S. President Donald Trump referred to himself as a “wartime president,” and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used militaristic language when he said, “In this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hasn’t loaded his speeches with warlike expressions, but he has referred to the coronavirus as a “見えない敵” (“mienai teki,” “the adversary you can’t see”) and attempted to rally the public with terminology like “コロナウイルスに打ち勝つ” (“koronauirusu ni uchikatsu”, “to overcome coronavirus”). (The latter expression uses the verb 打ち勝つ, which can also mean “defeat,” “surmount” and “overcome.”)

The verbal strategies you’re more likely to hear at 記者会見 can be found in “Politically Speaking: A Worldwide Examination of Language Used in the Public Sphere.” Edited by Ofer Feldman and Christ’l De Landtsheer, the book identifies three main characteristics: 濁し (nigoshi), which is similar to hedging; 鋭意 (eii, energetic or assiduous); and 間接的表現 (kansetsuteki hyōgen, indirect expressions).

The frequent appearance of 濁し in political speech is illustrated with Abe’s frequent use of the auxiliary verb “~だろう” (~darō, maybe/should probably~). At a March 28 記者会見, he told reporters: “思い切った給付を行っていくべきなんだろうなという風に考えております” (“Omoikitta kyūfu o okonatte-iku beki-nan darō na to iu fū ni kangaete-orimasu,” “I think we need to be bold in providing benefits to people suffering financially [from the coronavirus]”).

“~だろう” conveys the nuance of assumption, but allows the speaker to avoid committing to a position, which can help save face if things go awry. Other phrases that help with this are とりあえず (toriaezu, for the moment), いずれにせよ (izureniseyo, in any case) and おそらくは (osoraku wa, I fear it’s likely that).

The second characteristic is the usage of 鋭意. Feldman explains that it is often used when a speaker wants to convey a positive impression although the prospects are poor. Listening to the words of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike at a March 30 記者会見, she stated, “国ともしっかりと密接に連携しながら…感染の拡大防止に努めてまいりたいと考えております” (“Kuni tomo shikkarito missetsu ni renkei shinagara … kansen no kakudai bōshi ni tsutomete-mairitai to kangaete-orimasu,” “I think we will make efforts on preventing the spread of infection … while doing so in close cooperation with the central government”).

The adjective しっかりと (shikkarito, firmly/close) and the verb 努めてまいりたい (tsutomete-mairitai, want to make an effort) both convey the idea of 一生懸命 (isshōkenmei, with utmost effort) to those listening, signaling that she’s doing her best. Other terms that you may hear include 全力で (zenryoku de, with all my might), 十分に (jūbun ni, fully/thoroughly) and できるだけ (dekirudake, as much as possible). All are used when someone wants to make what they’re saying sound more convincing even if they don’t have a concrete plan.

The third trait, 間接的表現, is also an approach that you’ll likely hear in everyday Japanese conversation, too. Most commonly, if you ask permission for something, a Japanese speaker may simply respond with “難しいです” (muzukashii desu, it’s difficult) as they suck their teeth and tilt their head. In these cases, “difficult” usually means “no.” Speaking on March 28, Abe said, “損失を補填する形で、税金でそれを補償することはなかなか難しいのでありますが…” (“Sonshitsu o hoten suru katachi de, zeikin de sore o hoshō suru koto wa naka-naka muzukashii no de arimasu ga…,” “It is quite difficult to compensate losses using tax money”). He is literally saying that it would be “quite ‘difficult’ to compensate income loss with tax,” but the implication is more like it is impossible.

Another indirect term is the verb 控える (hikaeru, to hold back from/refrain), which is used when you want people not to do something. While governments overseas can demand or order people to stay home to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Japan urges 外出自粛 (gaishutsu jishuku, self-restraint from going out) due to the nature of its 法律 (hōritsu, laws).

Japanese politicians avoid speaking directly, and instead remain ambiguous and neutral, to maintain the 和 (wa, harmony) of society. By doing so, it is believed understanding will be gained from people who may oppose what they are saying.

While we’re all looking forward to the day when we can resume our usual activities, for now, 不要不急の外出はお控えください (fuyō fukyū no gaishutsu wa o-hikae kudasai, we humbly request that you refrain from going outside for nonessential and nonurgent matters). In other words, stay home please.

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