Of manju, fish burgers and pachinko in the town of Obama


The more I live in Japan (quite a few years now) the more I realize the only difference between the Italians and the Japanese is the way we eat raw fish.

Japanese use shoyu while we still stick to (but who knows the future) olive oil and (though some people would object) lemon.

For all the rest, we are quite similar, although few would imagine it or care to admit to it.

Think about politics: Most Japanese and Italians would agree that clever and basically honest, hard-working people are having to put up with basically corrupt, inept and arrogant politicians to the point that both countries’ voters have practically given up on politics and decided to concentrate on business, leisure, food and travel (anything missing here?).

Another aspect Italy and Japan share is the growing importance being taken on by local leaders and communities. It’s an amazing factor, while we all talk about and are forced to endure globalization.

This was on my mind when, puzzled by a first report on Japanese television, I decided to drive to the town of Obama in Fukui Prefecture and meet what I thought was a cunning mayor who had found a very effective way to promote his already famous (for those who follow NHK’s morning drama “Chiri to Techin”) coastal town.

To convince my editors that the trip was worthwhile, I promised to stop over somewhere in Gunma-ken and Niigata-ken, to report on the amazing skiing there (lots of snow, no after-ski culture, many obsolete lifts and indecent, outrageously expensive food).

After surviving the weekend storm in Niigata-ken and safely reaching Obama in the middle of the night, I started looking for the Daitoryo (President) pachinko parlor, widely reported on by the TV program mentioned earlier.

Unfortunately, it was closed. On top of that, the parlor was going to be closed the following day for some kind of junbi, or preparations. But there were people inside, and we tried our luck.

There are two kinds of pachinko managers, those who won’t even talk to a foreigner no matter how hen, or strange that foreigner is (meaning able to speak Japanese), and those who will let you play for free.

We were lucky. Not only did they let us in, we were offered drinks, and while our cameraman was busy shooting whatever he wanted to except the control or operation room, but including a guy who was busy tampering with the machines with a very special mini-hammer, I was given the deepest and most honnest (yes, with two “ns” from honne) lecture on pachinkology.

The lecture clued us in on the alternative translation for junbi, which on that occasion meant to prepare for the periodic visit by the police, who would check, or at least pretend to check, whether the pinball gates would let the little balls go through. I like this city, I thought. In Italy too we have to go through a lot of tatemae before getting to the point, so we do appreciate when there are shortcuts to the honne.

Everything went smoothly that night. Even the nightman at the Sekumiya hotel, moved by our appearance, offered to reopen the onsen, including the nice little rotenburo. I have run into places much more expensive and pretentious that don’t do anything near that even when I threaten to perform informal seppuku on the spot.

The meeting with Toshi Murakami, the 75-year-old veteran mayor of Obama, was set for the following morning at 11 a.m. “He is yours for one hour,” his very friendly secretary had promised a couple of days earlier. The mayor was late (a good sign for us Italians).

While admiring the institutional souvenirs scattered throughout the big room we were shown to, including a picture taken with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a plethora of local and national media began to interview me.

When the NHK people learned of my plan to ask the mayor to talk to us as we walked through the Obama town shotengai, they set up to join us, almost forgetting their main objective — to get the first shot of the wrapping of the never-before-sold Obama manju, and the never-before-eaten Obama (fish)burger — a world scoop, apparently.

The mayor was very cooperative from the beginning. He had not known of my plan for the strolling chat, but upon hearing it, gladly agreed to it and ordered his staff to fetch his boots and coat. Again, no need for too many preliminaries.

After he told me how much he loved Italy (although he had never been there), and how much he was looking forward to setting up a sister-city agreement with a small Sardinia town, I began my questions.

Those who think that the Obama fever is just based on a phonetic coincidence, and that Murakami and his staff are simply cleverly capitalizing on it, may be wrong.

Murakami is an experienced and shrewd politician who has been in business for many years and he does not mind criticizing the party that has supported him thus far, the jiminto, or LDP.

That became very clear when we touched upon the rachi (abduction) cases, since two of them had happened right in Obama.

“I think that President Bush and our leaders were wrong,” said the mayor. “And one of the reasons I do heartily support Obama is because I am sure he will pursue dialogue and peace talks with North Korea.”

Needless to say, we discussed the issue for the next hour, forgetting about manju, hamburgers and pachinko.

I was amazed to realize that all this talk, instead of arousing their interest, had caused most of the NHK crew and local media following us to silently fade away.

“Do you know how can I get to Bukkoji temple,” I asked the mayor when I realized my time was up. “I have a friend’s friend to greet there.”

To my surprise, the mayor called his car and offered to drive me up there. “I am a personal friend of Harada-roshi (the temple’s chief priest), and I will gladly introduce you to him.”

I appreciated this very much, as I appreciated the fact that the major did not care about his own busy schedule. After all, this is the acceptable price of becoming a futsu na kuni, or normal country. Having to wait a little shouldn’t be a big deal.

Obama, banzai!