To assess how the next U.S. administration of Barack Obama would cope with the various challenges ahead, it is essential to have an accurate understanding of the significance of his election victory, Japanese experts told a recent symposium in Tokyo.

As the first black to become U.S. president, much of the Japanese media coverage of the election tended to focus on this fact, but that is only one part of the story, they said.

Four experts took part in the Nov. 20 symposium organized by the Keizai Koho Center to discuss Obama’s economic and diplomatic challenges as well as Japan-U.S. relations.

Given the extremely low popular support for outgoing President George W. Bush and the financial crisis that engulfed the United States since just before the election, Obama’s resounding victory came as no surprise, said Akihiko Tanaka, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Oriental Culture.

Rather, Obama’s victory clearly represented a desire on the part of American voters to change the eight-year political regime of the Bush administration, Tanaka said.

So the significance of his election is that the U.S. demonstrated it was capable of changing itself — after Bush’s unilateralist approach resulted in a diplomatic and economic mess, he said. “This will have the effect of restoring lost international trust in the U.S.,” he added.

Toshihiko Nakayama, an associate professor at Tsuda College and adjunct fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, also noted that the full meaning of Obama’s victory may be lost on many people in Japan.

The election of the first black American president in itself is a historic event, but many U.S. voters supported Obama as a leader who eloquently spoke of changing the nation — and who just happens to be black, said Nakayama.

Nakayama said he is afraid that despite the close security and economic ties, there seems to exist a “compassion gap” between Japan and the U.S. Obama has received enthusiastic public support in some European nations and that was entirely different in nature from the “Obama fever” observed among residents of the city of Obama in Fukui Prefecture, he noted.

Following his phenomenal victory, Obama will face enormous economic and diplomatic challenges in the next four years, Tanaka said.

Even if the financial crisis can be controlled, its impact on the economy will linger on and Obama will have to brace for economic problems that are likely to last three years or even longer, he said.

Kazuhiko Yano, head of the Economic Research Department of Mizuho Research Institute, said that once Obama takes office in January, the American public will judge his administration by the condition of the U.S. economy.

Consumer spending will likely remain depressed for an extended period, and even after the U.S. economy hits bottom, the recovery will likely be slow and painful, and may turn out to be a “jobless” recovery, where the employment situation remains tight, he said.

Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki, executive vice president of Sojitz Research Institute, said Obama’s honeymoon could be very short, given the severe U.S. economic prospects. Still, Tanaka said Obama, with the increased Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, will remain in a fairly strong domestic position even if popular support should fall in the wake of the election euphoria.