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Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009

Obama inspires high hopes

Economic fears tinge optimism of Japanese and foreign residents


By MINORU MATSUTANI and ERIC JOHNSTON
Staff writers

Japanese and foreign residents of Tokyo and Osaka voiced hope Wednesday that new U.S. President Barack Obama will abandon the unilateral approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush, while some Japanese expressed concern that bilateral relations will be overshadowed by economic and military snags.

Panelists speak before some 100 people gathered at 'Katteni Obama Night,' or 
'Our Way to Celebrate Obama Night,'
Historic night: Panelists speak late Tuesday before some 100 people gathered at "Katteni Obama Night," or "Our Way to Celebrate Obama Night," in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, to watch the live telecast of Barack Obama's inauguration in Washington. KYODO PHOTO

"I hope Obama will bring peace to the world and respect the authorities of the United Nations," a Swedish businessman, 41, said in Tokyo, apparently in reference to the Iraqi conflict, which began in 2003 initially without U.N. backing.

Xu Xinrau, 21, a Chinese student at Temple University, Japan Campus in Minato Ward, Tokyo, said she does not want Obama to repeat the mistakes Bush made in Iraq.

Xu, who stayed up till 2:30 a.m. Wednesday to watch Obama's inaugural speech live on TV, said, "When Bush spoke, it often sounded like he wanted to give the impression that Iraqi people equaled terrorists. His speeches sent the wrong message."

However, she supports Obama's plan to send more troops to Afghanistan so the U.S. can "finish what it started."

A 48-year-old Japanese businessman said he expects Obama to resolve conflicts in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan through negotiations instead of force.

On Japan-U.S. relations, he said he believes Obama will put more emphasis on China in Asia diplomacy and that will pose a challenge to Japanese politicians, adding he is "a bit concerned about what Obama will do regarding North Korea, because he has many other things to worry about."

Xu meanwhile expressed hope that Obama tries to forge friendly ties with China. "Obama is in many ways different from past U.S. presidents, and he may be easier for Chinese (politicians) to get along with," she said.

Despite the perceived emphasis on China, U.S. citizens in Japan are hoping that Obama will ensure the two allies maintain friendly relations.

"I am hopeful that he will deliver on his promise to reinforce the positive image of the U.S. around the world. As part of this promise, I hope that the new president will continue to promote favorable relations between the U.S. and Japan and appoint dedicated individuals with significant knowledge of Japan to key governmental positions," said Matthew Wilson, an American and senior associate dean and general counsel at Temple University, Japan Campus, in Tokyo.

"I believe that (Obama) will look to Japan for support as a valuable partner and ally" as he pursues measures to help the U.S. and other economies resolve their current difficulties and uncertainties, Wilson added.

While it remains unclear how well Obama will handle the economic crisis, Wilson hopes his "economic policies in particular will avoid protectionism."

A 35-year-old Japanese IT engineer in Tokyo said the global recession is one of Obama's most pressing issues.

But sounding a note of doubt, he added that while Obama "is young and probably competent, the current recession is not something one person or one country can solve. It's difficult no matter who is president."

Concerns about the global economy were also heard in Osaka.

"I think expectations for Obama are too high. The problems of the U.S. economy have been a long time in the making. Americans have a high degree of individual debt and tend not to save very much," said Kohei Okamoto, 51, an Osaka-based banker.

"Obama has to get people to fundamentally change their spending and consumption patterns, and that will be quite tough," he added.

Senior business leaders in Osaka also expressed concern about how Obama will handle the economy. But they welcomed the new president's pledges to combat global warming and climate change through a "New Deal" in public and private investment in clean and green technologies.

"Obama's green 'New Deal' will play a large role in dealing with the problem of global warming. We hope the new president will also establish a system of green cooperation with other countries as well," said Norihiko Saito, director of Kansai Electric Power and head of the Kansai Association of Corporate Executives.

Overall, Japanese and foreigners find reason for optimism in Obama.

"I think it's great that Americans elected an African-American as president, because I had thought that was impossible due to racial prejudice against black people. Americans showed they really can change," said Yumi Chiboshi, a 21-year-old university student.

But university student Xu was not sure Obama will live up to expectations.

"Obama may be popular just because of the recession," she said. "What he wants to do may be different from what the U.S. wants, so he may later become like Bush."



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