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Commentary by our President, Hitoshi Shirai
Simon & Garfunkel were an American folk-rock duo who produced a large number of famous songs. In particular, “Bridge over Troubled Water” became a major worldwide hit in many countries including Japan when it was released in 1970 and topped Billboard’s chart in that same year. Today, it remains a standard number that is covered by many different singers.
Other renowned works of the duo include “The Sound of Silence” that was featured in the movie “The Graduate,” as well as “Mrs. Robinson.” Another notable work is a song called “America” from the 1968 album titled “Bookends.” The track was later released as a single, which subsequently became a smash hit that went up to the 53rd place on the Billboard chart. The lyrics, which were written in the form of a short story, described the journey of a young couple travelling in a long-distance bus. The heroine was “Kathy,” the same name as Paul Simon’s ex-girlfriend. In the story, the couple enjoyed playing games, reading magazines and exchanging silly jokes during their bus journey. Noticing that the girl had fallen asleep beside him, the guy said to her, "Kathy, I'm lost." "I'm empty and aching and I don't know why." In the chorus, where the melody conveyed a consistently listless and depressed mood, he said, "I've gone to look for America," while there is a part of the lyrics near the ending that says, “All come to look for America.”
In 1968, the year when this song was written, many Americans were at a loss to understand what “America” meant to them as a country, and were looking for answers. During the Vietnam War when America furthered its intervention with its overwhelming military power, a move that was claimed to be for the greater cause of preventing the spread of communism to other Asian countries, a combined guerrilla operation by northern Vietnam known as the “Tet Offensive” took place during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year holiday period. The U.S. Embassy located in Saigon in the south was also temporarily seized. When the reality of the Tet Offensive and the tragic air strikes across the entire Vietnam were broadcast on TVs at home, the people then realized how a war that was supposed to end soon had escalated into a prolonged conflict.
It was also in April of the same year that Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister who had been leading the civil rights movement for many years and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to “non-violent campaigns to end racism in the United States,” was assassinated by a white male in Memphis while he was canvassing in Tennessee.
The US presidential election was held in 1968, and following the announcement of President’s Johnson’s withdrawal from the election, the next major candidate from the Democratic Party was Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of John F. Kennedy, the former president who had been assassinated. Based on the slogans of eradicating poverty and eliminating racial discrimination, he spoke to the black community in Indianapolis on April 4, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, despite strong objection from the police. In his speech, he said, “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man……What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred.” However, Robert F. Kennedy was also fatally shot at a hotel in Los Angeles in June of the same year after he won the primary election in California and the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Eventually, the president that the people of the United States chose in 1968 was Richard Nixon, the Republican Party nominee who advocated the restoration of law and order with the civil rights and antiwar movements becoming more violent and extreme. He won a narrow victory over his opponent from the Democratic Party, Hubert Humphrey, with only 1.2% more votes.
As with that presidential election held close to half a century ago, many Americans seem to be in search for their “America” in this year’s election as well. Of course, the situation today has changed dramatically. About 59 million people have migrated to the United States since 1968, which, including their offspring, account for an additional population of 72 million. The proportion of the white population decreased considerably from 84% to 62% over this period, while that of Hispanics increased from 4% to 18%, exceeding the size of the black population, which remains almost stagnant at 12% compared to 11% in 1968.
It has almost been eight years since the inauguration of the first black president, something that would have been unimaginable in the United States back in 1968. With “Change” as his slogan, in what ways has President Barack Obama changed “America?” How will the people choose his successor? Debates on the presidential election half a century later now focus on issues such as the daily lives, safety and affluence of the people, and also the need to narrow the gaps among them. It seems that ideals and causes which the United States presented to the world and has been urging other nations to achieve, such as democracy, free trade and elimination of racial discrimination, have been pushed aside. Where will the journey in the search for “America” in 2016 end up? There is a strong likelihood that the result will alter the geopolitical map of the world significantly.
Note: Ratios of the U.S. population are based on data from the Pew Research Center