OBAMA, Japan (AFP) — Barack Obama, who has been credited with tapping support in unlikely places, is enjoying a groundswell of enthusiasm in a small city in western Japan, which is delighted to share his name.
Obama, Japan, is rooting for candidate Obama, hoping that if he becomes the U.S. president he will put this ancient fishing town of 32,000 people firmly on the tourist map and, just maybe, choose it for an international summit.
Supporters in Obama — which means “small shore” in Japanese — have held parties to watch election results, put up posters wishing the senator luck and plan a special batch of the town’s “manju” sweets bearing his likeness.
“At first we were more low-key as Hillary Clinton looked to be ahead, but now we see he is getting more popular,” Obama Mayor Toshio Murakami said.
“I give him an 80 percent chance of becoming president,” the 75-year-old said with a proud grin.
Murakami sent a letter last year to Obama, enclosing a set of lacquer chopsticks, a famous product of this town on the Sea of Japan (East Sea) in Fukui prefecture’s Wakasa region.
“I will present you the chopsticks of Wakasa paint and I am glad if you use it habitually,” Murakami said in the English-language letter. “I wish you the best of health and success.”
Murakami noted that Barack Obama’s birthday, August 4, happens to be “Chopsticks Day” in the city.
Obama, who is also a hero in his father’s native Kenya, has been gaining in a neck-and-neck race with Clinton, in part by winning over voters in states that rarely back members of their Democratic party.
Murakami is now preparing another package for the candidate that will include a good-luck charm from the local Obama Shrine.
“For the first letter I found his address on the Internet, so I don’t know if he got it,” Murakami said. “But this time I asked the (US) embassy for his exact address, so I’m sure he’ll get it.”
Lest cynics find the city’s efforts naive, it was Obama himself who first drew attention to the connection.
Obama, speaking to Japan’s TBS network in December 2006, said that when he flew once to Tokyo, an officer stamping his passport told him of the town.
“He looked up and said, ‘I’m from Obama,'” the senator said.
A professor saw the footage and contacted the mayor, who insists that his support for Obama goes beyond just his name.
“It seems to me that President Bush isn’t aggressively addressing global warming, but Obama would. And I like how he opposed the Iraq war,” he said.
Murakami also hoped a President Obama would sign a peace treaty with North Korea. It is no small issue in Obama, one of the seaside towns where agents from the communist state kidnapped Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, setting off a long row between the countries.
The election is being closely followed by many in 1,500-year-old Obama, a port nestled by snowy hills that in ancient times supplied food to the emperor when he lived in Kyoto some 75 kilometres (40 miles) to the south.
“When you look in Obama’s eyes and hear his voice, he’s very impressive,” said resident Rieko Tanaka.
“Hillary is a bit old-fashioned and she’s the wife of Bill Clinton, so I think a new person should lead the USA,” she said.
Tomoyuki Ueda, 40, a company worker dining at a restaurant serving the town’s celebrated mackerel, said it would be healthy for the United States to elect its first African-American president.
“I think both Obama and Hillary are qualified, but if Obama becomes president he could correct problems of racial discrimination,” he said.
Seiji Fujihara, a head of the local tourism board, said he has only met a black person once, but believed Obama’s election would make the United States “more equal” on racial issues.
Fujihara started a club for self-styled Obama supporters in the city and plans “I love Obama” T-shirts.
“We know we can’t vote. But if we send out a message, we can help push him to victory,” he said.