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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 17, 2008

Japanese town goes crazy for Obama

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By Junji Kurokawa
Associated Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A neighborhood shoe shop in Obama may be one of the businesses feeling a special kinship with the U.S. candidate. Barack Obama has never been to the small port town in Japan, but they're celebrating him there with everything from posters and sweatbands to pastries with his portrait on them.

Photos by JUNJI KUROKAWA | Associated Press

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The traditional daruma doll is a specialty of Japan's town of Obama, known for its lacquerware and now going nuts for Barack Obama. The mayor plans to send the U.S. candidate a good-luck daruma doll.

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OBAMA, Japan Barack Obama has never been to this port town on Japan's snowy west coast, and residents only know him from news reports about his faraway campaign for the U.S. presidency.

No matter. Obama the town is nuts about Obama the man.

Obama's name is on posters hung in the main hotel. Headbands and T-shirts with drawings of the candidate's face will be available soon. Local confectioners are designing Japanese-style sweet bean cakes with Obama's portrait on them.

Policy doesn't seem to matter much either to this Obama, which is well-known in Japan for its lacquerware. Instead, the overriding issue is simple: Obama's name.

"Obama gives good speeches and has a good voice, so I want him to do well. And, of course, we share the same name," said Seiji Fujiwara, a hotel executive and leader of a local support group established earlier this month for the Illinois senator.

As fanciful as it may seem, leaders in Obama which means "little beach" in Japanese are serious about forging a relationship with the candidate.

The mayor, Toshio Murakami, sent Obama a letter a year ago with a gift of lacquerware chopsticks, a DVD introducing the city, and a guidebook, but no one knows if the package arrived because they never received a response.

The town 250 miles west of Tokyo is undaunted. Murakami plans to send Obama another care package, this one with a fist-sized lacquerware good-luck daruma doll with the word "victory" across the chest in Japanese calligraphy.

"We want to ask him to stop by Obama as president if he visits Japan," said Sadakazu Tsu-bouchi, an official at city hall.

But like many towns in the far reaches of Japan's countryside that are desperate for tourism revenue, Obama is also eager for gimmicks to distinguish itself.

People in this town of 32,000 say that an Obama presidency could enhance the city's profile far beyond Japan's borders.

"It would boost our city's name recognition, and that can lead to a boost in tourism," said the mayor. "We want a little more of an increase in foreign visitors."

Obama the candidate has already obliged in a small way, joking to broadcaster TBS in 2006 that he had listed the town as his birthplace while passing through customs on a visit to Japan.

After eight consecutive primary wins, Obama has edged past opponent Hillary Clinton by a slim margin of delegates. Supporters of Obama here are now looking forward to the March 4 primary contests in delegate-rich Texas and Ohio.

The 30-member support group plans to put on headbands and T-shirts with portraits of Obama to watch the results on television together, said Fujiwara. They plan to sell Obama sweets and chopsticks once they get clearance from the candidate.

The U.S. election has drawn almost unprecedented interest broad. But the belief in Obama, Japan, that an Obama victory would bring immediate advantages to the town may be unique.

Sanae Doi, a 40-year-old housewife at the local mall on Thursday, said she hadn't heard of Barack Obama until just two weeks before the Super Tuesday primary elections on Feb. 5.

"Since then, a lot of my friends and I have been talking about Obama, how his name is the same as the place we live," she said. "If he becomes popular, I'm hoping this whole region will get recognition."