Japanese Town of Obama Has New Hero

Democratic candidates both win Japanese supporters, for very different reasons.


TOKYO, Japan, Feb 8, 2008— -- Covering Japan probably was not part of the campaign strategy for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. But the heat is on among some supporters in Japan who feel a somewhat unusual connection with each candidate.

The residents of Obama City in Fukui Prefecture in central Japan cannot contain their excitement about the prospect of having someone named "Obama" being the U.S. president. And the employees of a farming and construction machinery maker in southern Japan are cheering for the candidate whose first name is the same as one of the transportation machines they build and sell: the "Hillary."

In the coastal city of Obama, about 300 miles northwest of Tokyo, some residents formed a support group called "Group that Supports Barack Obama Voluntarily" in early February. Of course, none of the group's original 18 members in this city, with a population of a little more than 32,000, are qualified to cast a vote in the election.

"But we wanted to do something because Mr. Obama does not feel like a stranger to us. We both carry the name Obama, and he is like a relative to us," said Seiji Fujihara, the group's secretary general.

The group members gathered and monitored the results of Super Tuesday primaries as many Japanese TV stations gave a blow-by-blow report of the voting.

"He is a good public speaker. I love his voice, too. I am sure he will bring a breath of fresh air to the American political system," said Fujihara. "Two elderly farmers called me after Super Tuesday and said they wanted to join the group. I think our support base will keep growing."

The group set up an ad-hoc headquarters, including a banner and a caricature of Barack Obama, at a hotel where Fujihara works. It is planning to make head bands and even Japanese "manju" sweets — Japanese steamed cake with red bean paste filling spelling out "Obama."

Fujihara said the group will gather to watch the results of the March 4 primary voting as well.

"If Mr. Obama becomes the president, we will form a delegation and try to visit him at the White House. That would be awesome," said Fujihara.

Obama City and Barack Obama have some history, according to Satoshi Emi, an Obama city official. He said the city started to pay closer attention to Barack Obama when one of the residents said he saw Obama make a joke on Japanese television and said, "I am from Obama City in Fukui Prefecture," back in 2006.

"We were very excited to hear that, and our mayor sent Mr. Obama a thank-you note and two pairs of locally made chopsticks — one for Mr. Obama and one for Mrs. Obama," said Emi. "We never heard back from him, but we hope he got our message."

Emi said the city would love to invite the Obamas to visit if the Illinois senator becomes president.

"Being a coastal city, Obama is known for great seafood. We would love for him and his family to enjoy good food," said Emi.

Although she is not getting the support of an entire city, Hillary Clinton is also gaining popularity among certain people in Japan — specifically 180 employees of Chikusui Cany Com in Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture, 560 miles south of Tokyo. Chikusui Cany Corn builds a transportation machine named after the presidential candidate.

Masami Hara, the company's spokesman, said the transportation machine known as "Hillary" came out around the time Bill Clinton became president in 1992.

"There also was a TV character named Hirari on Japanese television at that time. Hirari means quickly or swiftly in Japanese," said Hara, "So we named the machine Hillary because the machine can be quickly or easily maneuvered. We also like the sound of the name and what it represented in the United States."

The company has sold more than 20,000 units of "Hillary" at $3,400 apiece.

"Mrs. Clinton is just like our Hillary — the machine is small but it can carry any material that weighs up to 660 pounds. Compact and durable — isn't Hillary Clinton like that?" said Hara.

Hara said the U.S. presidential race has been a source of widespread conversation among employees as they watch their favorite candidates fight the battle.

"I heard some women in the U.S. do not like Mrs. Clinton," Hara said. "Our female employees say they like her. She represents a hope and a change for America. They look up to her."

The company has products named after celebrities both from home and abroad. The company introduced an industrial strength weed clipper named "Bush Cutter George Jr." in 2003. With a price tag of $63,000, the sales of Bush Cutter George Jr. have been slow compared to those of Hillary. "But people love the name — Bush Cutter George Jr. — this name made the machine famous," said Hara.

"So even when President Bush ends his work at the White House, our George Jr. will continue to work for us."

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