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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

For Fukui city of Obama, choice of U.S. candidate is a no-brainer

Staff writer

OSAKA — If you're traveling through Fukui Prefecture over the coming weeks, don't be surprised if you see signs, posters or even souvenir goods that say "Obama for Obama."

News photo
This "manga" drawing of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama is the symbol of his unofficial support group in Obama, Fukui Prefecture. ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF THE BARACK OBAMA SUPPORT GROUP

A group of 16 local residents in Obama, a city on the Sea of Japan coast, formed a support group for U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama last week in the hopes that if he eventually winds up in the White House, he'll bring not only change to American politics but, more importantly, make Obama a world famous name.

It all started a couple of years ago, after the city heard from local reporters that the senator, upon arriving in Japan, joked with Japanese customs officials that he was from Obama, Fukui Prefecture.

True or not, the story prompted Mayor Toshio Murakami to send the candidate a long thank-you letter in January 2007, explaining the history of the city and saying Obama's comments, in jest or not, "helped advertise our city."

Included in the letter was a gift of high-quality chopsticks made in Obama.

Now, however, with Obama a strong presidential candidate and drawing worldwide media attention, residents of the city have taken things a step further. Led by Seiji Fujiwara, a local hotel manager, the Barack Obama support group hopes to stage a number of Obama-related nonpolitical events to raise local awareness.

It has already drawn a likeness of the candidate as their official club symbol for use on publicity materials.

There is even talk of stamping that symbol on souvenir items like Obama bean-paste cakes, with the drawing of his face on top, although Fujiwara said the group will get his permission before attempting to delve into this particular brand of "money politics."

The reasons for the support have less to do with international politics and more to do with local tourism.

"If Barack Obama becomes president, the name Obama will become world famous, and our city will be known around the world," said Fujiwara, explaining the purpose of the group's founding.

Obama is a port town with a 1,300-year history, and was once a center of trade between ancient Nara and China and the Korean Peninsula. Today, it's known locally for its seafood and nationally for the large concentration of nuclear plants in the nearby Wakasa Bay region.

It is also the home of Yasushi Chimura and his wife Fukie, two of the five Japanese who returned to Japan in 2002, a quarter-century after they were abducted to North Korea.

Asked what his members think of Barack Obama as a candidate, Fujiwara said the group knows little of his policies but is impressed by his rhetorical skills.

"He's a gifted speaker, and his message of change sounds exciting. It will be a big change for the city of Obama as well if he wins the nomination and is elected president," Fujiwara said.

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