February 19, 2008
Candidate Wins Support in the East. No, Farther East.
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
OBAMA, Japan — Just before the results of the big Feb. 5 round of primaries and caucuses reached this snow-covered fishing town hard by the Sea of Japan, a few of its most enterprising residents realized that a man who shared their town’s name could be America’s next president.
And so Obama sprang into action, its desire to escape the countryside’s anonymity interwoven with Senator Barack Obama’s run for the White House. A support group was formed. Primary day events were held. And “Go Obama!” posters were put up.
On Monday, as expectations ran high here that Mr. Obama would sweep Tuesday’s primaries in Wisconsin and Hawaii, Obama, population 32,000, was making plans to buttress its support. Businessmen were getting ready with “I love Obama” T-shirts, a theme song called “Obama Is a Wonderful World” and sweet bean cakes with Mr. Obama’s face on them. City Hall was going to send a daruma doll with “victory” written across its chest, a traditional good-luck charm in Japanese elections.
“We formed our group on Feb. 4,” said Seiji Fujiwara, the leader of the support group and an official at the Sekumiya Hotel here, not far from Obama Park and across the street from the Obama Shoes Center, where a 50 percent sale was under way.
“He put up a good fight on Super Tuesday and then won seven consecutive contests, so I think our support did him no harm and, in fact, carried him in the right direction,” Mr. Fujiwara said. “That happens sometimes. You enter a restaurant and there’s no one inside, but the moment you sit down and order something, customers start coming in one after the other.”
Mr. Fujiwara entertained the modest hopes that, thanks to the attention, paying guests would follow reporters to his door. But he was also eager to identify a bond beyond a shared name with the senator, noting that he hoped Mr. Obama would push for stricter gun control.
In fact, it was not the first time that the connection had been noted. In a 2006 interview with TBS, a Japanese television network, Mr. Obama himself recounted how he had first heard of the town from an official at Narita Airport, near Tokyo, during an earlier visit to Japan.
“There was a man at customs who was stamping my visa,” Mr. Obama said. “And he saw it, and he looked up and said, ‘I’m from Obama.’ ”
The Obama City Hall got wind of Mr. Obama’s comments, which seemed infused, at least to some local ears, with a longing by the candidate for a long-lost hometown. Toshio Murakami, the mayor, decided to send Mr. Obama a set of the city’s famous lacquer chopsticks, a DVD of Obama and a letter wishing him the best.
Obama never got a response from Mr. Obama, perhaps because the mayor had gotten the senator’s mailing address off the Internet. This time, he was taking no chances in mailing the daruma doll and got the address from the United States Embassy.
“I believe he’s the right president for this new age,” the mayor said, adding that he liked Mr. Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq and his emphasis on dialogue. “America’s image in the world will change.”
“And if Obama’s inaugurated president,” he added, “maybe we’ll get some American tourists.”
Truth be told, this has been a very good season for Obama. A city with no Starbucks and only a single McDonald’s, it has been struggling, like the rest of rural Japan, with a decline in taxpaying residents and job-creating public works. Then a few months ago, NHK, the public television network, began broadcasting a daily drama set in Obama, boosting tourism here.
Though this city has drawn most of the attention, Japan actually has plenty of localities named “Obama” and even, yes, a not insignificant number of “Obama-sans.”
Written with the characters meaning “small” and “shore,” the word can also be read as “Ohama” or even “Kohama” because of the vagaries of the Japanese language. There is no way to know for sure except to ask.
“People often read my name as Kohama, so I always correct them and say it’s Obama,” said Koichi Obama, 64, an executive at a trading company in Tokyo. “Now, I think I was being prescient.”
At first glance, the existence of Japanese Obamas and an American presidential candidate named Obama, whose surname comes from the ethnic Luo group in Kenya, may seem too eerie a coincidence.
But the reality is that because almost all Japanese words and words in many African languages end in vowels, they often sound alike. Japanese who have studied Swahili, the lingua franca in East Africa, invariably remark that it is easier to learn than, say, English.
In West Africa, Japanese speakers stumble endlessly upon names of people and places that look and sound almost exactly like those in Japan.
Back here in Obama, Koichi Inoue, who was preparing the Obama sweet bean cakes, was also taking pleasure in drawing surprising connections. Mr. Inoue didn’t have any opinions on Mr. Obama’s policies, but found him inspirational.
“For someone of my generation,” Mr. Inoue said, “America is John F. Kennedy and Rocky, you know, Sylvester Stallone, and now there’s Obama. He’s for change. I think that’s great. In Japan, and here in Obama, change is so slow. But over there a new wind is blowing.”
Yasuko Kamiizumi contributed reporting.