Japanese City of Obama Celebrates Namesake's Victory

OBAMA, Japan -- "La, la-la-la-la O-ba-ma! Obama is beautiful world! Obama is number one!"

It was getting late for a Wednesday in the normally sleepy town of Obama, Japan, but the party was still going. Barack Obama had been elected U.S. president, and members of the "Obama for Obama" supporters group were drinking rice wine and singing their official theme song.

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The Obama campaign unfolded half a world away, but it energized this close-knit seaside community in a way few could remember. The supporters group attracted 1,500 members, and dozens joined the Obama Girls hula dance team to celebrate Obama's Hawaiian heritage.

"The election has awakened this town. People have the feeling that 'I want to do something,"' said Obama's mayor, Kouji Matsuzaki.

The results came in at lunchtime in Japan, right in the middle of a flowing Obama Girls hula performance. Spectators mobbed the stage and jumped up and down as an impromptu round of Obama chants broke out.

Obama has a population of 32,000, far smaller than the crowds the candidate drew at many of his U.S. campaign stops. Few along its quiet streets know his stances on the major issues, but his optimism and upbeat message of change resonates well here.

"I think this is a chance for us to turn things around," said Mitsuyasu Kishino, who runs his family's 133-year-old kimono shop on the town's main shopping street.

He said he's seen more tourists since the town latched on to the U.S. election, especially foreigners, but few were buying his kimonos.

Obama, which means "little beach" in Japanese, is a former fishing town that now relies almost entirely on tourism. More than 500 years old, it boasts numerous ancient temples and a distinctive hand-painted lacquerware.

But the rustic town, wrapped around a stretch of sandy beach and surrounded by wooded hills, is not well-known, even among Japanese tourists.

Obama's success has brought welcome publicity.

The town has been featured repeatedly in the domestic and international media, and the number of visitors has increased 20 percent since it linked itself to the Obama campaign, said Shigeyoshi Takeda, who heads the city tourism bureau.

The mastermind behind the "Obama for Obama" campaign, Seiji Fujiwara, is executive director of one of the town's largest hotels. He said the town has several business leaders with marketing experience that jumped on the opportunity.

"There are other towns named Obama in Japan, but we were the first to react," he said.

Town officials sent gifts and received an official letter from the campaign, signed "Your friend" in Japanese.

The town's businesses then joined in, pumping out Barack Obama sweet bean cakes, chopsticks, T-shirts, fish burgers, neck ties, and Obama Noodles marked "For world peace and stability."

Most items show only the back of his head, to avoid any legal complications.

The Kenyan ambassador to Japan, Dennis N. O. Awori, swept into town and said his country was considering building a special airport near Obama's ancestral village so he could fly in on Air Force One. Obama's father was from Kenya.

"We accept he's American of course, but we consider him one of our own. We are very, very excited about his win," he said.

At the party, Awori sported an Obama necktie while he watched the performances and ate an Obama fish burger.

Meanwhile, the town made plans for the future.

The mayor sent a congratulatory telegram to Obama and said he was looking into making him a "special honorary citizen."

And the Obama Girls announced their new goal: to travel to Washington for the inauguration in January and perform a hula dance in front of the White House.