x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Obama town

Feature A sleepy Japanese fishing port that shares its name with a certain US presidential candidate hopes to be put firmly on the tourist map.

The hula-dancing group Obama Girls shout "Yes we can!" during a rally to support the US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama in the Japanese city of Obama.
The hula-dancing group Obama Girls shout "Yes we can!" during a rally to support the US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama in the Japanese city of Obama.

Framed by dense green mountains and damp grey skies, the kimono maker Ikuyo Yamashita stands in the doorway of her wooden store. Her gold silk kimono is expertly pleated, folded and tucked and she stands tall in her split-toed socks and traditional wooden sandals.

But it is her wide obi belt fastened high around her waist that catches the eye. It is emblazoned not with traditional Japanese motifs but the image of a face belonging to a man who has become instantly recognisable in every corner of the world - Barack Obama. As tens of millions of Americans head to the polls today to mark the start of a new chapter in the United States' history, life will also grind to a halt in an unlikely setting nearly 11,000 kilometres from Washington: the sleepy Japanese fishing town of Obama.

For a town whose fame has previously been limited to the quality of its mackerel and the birthplace of an obscure 18th century anatomist, the impact of serendipitously sharing a name with an American presidential hopeful has rippled through a community that is hoping to put itself on the tourist map. Since the launch of Obama's campaign in February last year, residents in the picturesque port town have diligently traced its ups and downs with a passion to rival the most ardent of American activists.

The ranks of the town's blossoming "Obama for Obama" campaign have swollen to more than 1,300 residents, who have devoted months of meetings to organising election parties and producing a range of Obama products. From chopsticks and sweet bean cakes to kimonos and headbands, a string of local businesses have created novel fusions of traditional Japanese products emblazoned with the ever-familiar face of Obama as part of the campaign.

And so, as the votes are counted, it will not only be the population of America and the landscape of global politics that will be influenced by the outcome: the future of the fishing town of Obama also hangs in the balance. "It is a very important day for us," says Seiji Fujihara, the energetic Obama for Obama campaign founder. "We all want him to win, And if he does win, it will change the future for Obama."

Encased by rugged moss green mountains, the small town sits on a picturesque bay facing the Sea of Japan in the heart of Fukui prefecture in central Japan, a five-hour train journey from the capital, Tokyo. Home to 33,000 residents, Obama - meaning "small beach" in Japanese - has a thriving fishing industry as well as a reputation for traditional crafts such as the manufacture of lacquer ware, traditional paper and clay tiles.

A sleepy time-warp ambience prevails throughout the town, from the railway station with its tidy rows of potted plants to the old-fashioned main street lined with 1950s-style tobacco counters. And so it is all the more surprising to spot on almost every lamppost a familiar face fluttering in the breeze on white banners surrounded by the words "I Love Obama". Not to mention the life-size statue of Obama, complete with a stars-and-stripes necktie and an "I Love Obama" bandanna, parked permanently outside the local department store.

The heart of the Obama campaign, however, is parked in the sedate confines of the Sekumiya Hotel, owned by Fujihara. As in most Japanese hotels, a raft of tourist posters jostle for space alongside souvenir boxes of traditional sweets, vending machines and artfully placed ikebana flower arrangements. Less conventionally, there is also what appears to be a growing shrine to the town's namesake: an entire wall has been lovingly adorned with Obama paraphernalia, from posters and badges to T-shirts and photographs.

In a small pink wedding planning office filled with photographs of seasonal reception arrangements, Fujihara, 56, explains his motivations behind the campaign between sips of green tea. "We are very fortunate to share the name of our town with a man like Obama," says Fujihara. "Mr Obama is about change. We must make the most of this opportunity to boost our own local economy and to make Obama famous not only in Japan but also in the rest of the world."

Producing a well-fingered laminated sheet that normally takes pride of place on the hotel check-in desk, he adds: "This is the letter we received from Mr Obama thanking us for sending him chopsticks and Japanese good luck charms at the start of his campaign. We hope he will come and visit here one day." Today, local dignitaries along with hundreds of residents will pile into a seafront museum to enjoy the election with Obama fish burgers, dancing and large CNN screens monitoring developments.

It will mark the climax of a campaign that has left few in the community untouched. Amid increasing tales of gloom and doom as a deepening global financial crisis sinks its teeth into Japan's economy, the coincidence of sharing a name with a US presidential candidate could not come at a better time for Obama's local businesses. Among those who have found an enterprising means of raising the profile of the town is Kouichi Inoue, who has been supplying Obama with piles of his delicious handcrafted traditional sweets for 17 years.

In the serene confines of his airy tea shop, Inoue, a gentle elderly man dressed in a white coat and wearing glasses, produces batches of manju - steamed rice cakes with red bean paste filling - embossed with the "I Love Obama" logo, complete with the politician's omnipresent face. Holding the metal tools specially crafted to create the imprint in the batch of 200 cakes he has made so far, Inoue says: "We all want Obama-san to win. When I watch him on television, he makes me think of JFK. There are so many similarities in speech and manner. He speaks of change and that is what we all need."

A short bicycle stroll down the street is the kimono maker Yamashita. Amid the piles of delicate fabric and kimonos hanging from the wall, she gently lays out on the tatami mat floor a selection of wide obi belts incongruously emblazoned with the same "I Love Obama" image. "I've made about eight of these since March, in different fabrics," says the 49-year-old Yamashita. "If Barack Obama becomes the first black president of the United States, America will change. And the name of Obama town will become well known around the world and more foreign visitors will come here."

For Hisashi Kawashima, the boss of a local chopstick factory, the opportunity to link the town to the US presidential hopeful was one not to be missed. Overlooking the sea on the ground floor of the factory, where two million chopsticks are produced every month, Kawashima showcases his "I love Obama" chopsticks, each marked with an image of the back of the politician's head, complete with his distinguishing ears.

"We make millions of chopsticks every month and I have worked here for more than 20 years, but we have never before put a politician's face on a pair of chopsticks," he laughs. "But this is an important time for our community. "I have made 2,000 Obama campaign chopsticks and am giving them away for free. If Obama-san wins, it will benefit us all and enable us to have a cultural exchange with the US."

The town's tourism association say that the effects of the campaign are being felt in Obama. A modest number of Japanese tourists have visited Obama in the past, drawn mostly by its string of temples, traditional arts and crafts as well as a stint as the setting for a popular TV drama. But since the campaign launch, tourist numbers are increasing: while there were just over 25,000 visitors during 2007, the first six months of this year saw more than 18,000.

Standing happily among the rental bicycles, autumn leaf posters and ubiquitous Obama banners in the small wooden tourist office by the station, Tatsuya Kaneo says: "There are many reasons to visit Obama. There are temples, crafts and traditional architecture. "But we are also happy to share a name with Obama-san, particularly if this brings visitors from Japan and overseas to visit." Surrounded by Obama chopsticks, cotton kimonos, headbands, sweets and T-shirts at a nearby souvenir shop, Shimada Chika, 38, adds: "These products are a good way of attracting business in Obama. We hope that many more foreign visitors will now come to Obama. And maybe, if he wins the election, Obama-san himself will visit one day."