OBAMA, Fukui Pref. – Yes we did. That’s what residents in the Sea of Japan town of Obama were chanting Wednesday during a boisterous celebration following Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.
Nearly 150 Obama supporters, including a number of Americans, were on hand to celebrate Barack Obama’s victory as America’s next president.
Until the U.S. presidential campaign attracted international media attention, the town had been known in Japan more for its fresh seafood, proximity to nuclear power plants and for being home to two Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, than as a bastion of ardent support for a U.S. presidential candidate.
The party kicked off Wednesday morning with Hawaiian dancing performed by the “Obama Girls,” in honor of Obama’s adoptive state, where his grandmother, who passed away Monday, had lived.
There was also a performance by the Anyone Brothers Band, who played a rendition of their hit single (in Obama at least) “Obama is Beautiful.”
Many residents were excited about the victory, but some also wondered what kind of change the new president can bring to U.S.-Japanese relations, especially under Japan’s current government.
“He’s young, so he’ll have lots of new ideas and he ran on the mandate of change. Hopefully, he’ll use his connection with our town to improve Japan’s relations with the U.S.,” said Masao Okao, a local guide.
“Obama’s election is good news for now. But will he make Japanese-U.S. relations better? It’s difficult to say if he’ll have a good relationship with (Prime Minister Taro) Aso,” said Hiroko Morishita, who owns a small restaurant in the town. “We may have to wait until after the Lower House election to see what direction Japanese-U.S. relations will take.”
Not all residents were excited by the prospect of their namesake becoming the U.S. president, however.
One local fisherman, who refused to give his name, said he feared that under the new president, who has said he favors direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, there will be no progress on the fate of the Japanese who were abducted to North Korea.
Two Japanese, Yasushi and Fukie Chimura, were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and returned to Japan in 2002. Both are from Obama.
Town leaders hope the international fame generated by their support will translate into increased business opportunities, and local merchants are already selling Obama Burgers, Obama sushi rolls (called Victory Wraps) and other products with the president-elect’s face stamped on them.
Alcillena Wilson, a black American English teacher and Obama supporter based in the town, said it is possible more tourists visiting Japan will make the trip to Obama.
“Obama is only a couple of hours from Kyoto, so the town is in a good position to attract tourists from abroad who want a day trip,” she said.
The town’s support for the president-elect began early this year after unconfirmed reports that the candidate had passed through Japan last year and jokingly told immigration officials he was “Obama who had come from Obama.”
A support group for Obama’s candidacy was formed, and the mayor sent Obama a small selection of local products and an explanation about the town.
“I understand Obama is a city of rich culture, deep traditions and natural beauty. We share more than a common name. We share a common planet and common responsibilities. I’m touched by your friendly gesture,” Obama said in a thank you letter sent to the mayor in February.
Obama officials plan to attend the January inauguration in Washington, and will issue a formal invitation for Obama to visit their town after he is sworn in.
At a separate ceremony Wednesday evening, Kenyan Ambassador to Japan Dennis Awori, representing the country where Obama’s father was born, said it was a great day for the city of Obama, for the U.S. and for Kenya.
America’s relations with Africa are expected to grow particularly strong under Obama, he said.
Obama Mayor Koji Matsuzaki added that his city hoped to form a sister-city relationship with the Kenyan town of Kisumu.