The Japan Obama-rama

Koizumi and the former President.

Koizumi and the former President.

There’s a strange quirk of nature occurring in Japan right now that I find alternatively hilarious, interesting, and frightening.  It is the country’s obsession with Barack Obama for one sole reason (I believe): he’s charismatic.  In a place that’s been run by ineffective tools since Prime Minister Koizumi left (whose lion-mane of hair could make anyone swoon), they’re clamoring to find someone to cling to.  Japanese people love their faces and stardom: this is the Trend-Crazy country of countries.  Often times, singers and actors find fans and fame off their face, not their actual talent.  Well, it’s the same thing with Obama: trust me, they have no idea what the heck he’s saying.

This silly obsession has struck me several times over the last several months.

Case 1: you’re celebrating the “coming of age” of seventh graders.  There’s a giant Japanese flag in the background.  Red and white streamers everywhere.  A beautiful, “huge” bonsai tree representing the gentle care and pruning needed for a good Japanese community, and the sea of uniformity that Japanese schools require of their students.  Then, the head of the PTA stands up to make his speech talking about growing up, and what does he say?  

America’s President, Barack Obama, has given us a message perfect for this day: ‘Change,’ and ‘Yes, we can.’

No mention of Aso-san or his comrades in arms before him.  No ancient wellbringer of wisdom or Zen monk rocking it in this ceremony.  No, the only dude he quotes from is a guy who is so foreign to Japanese people, old Obaa-chans would faint if he said “Konnichiwa” to them.  

Case 2: At one of my elementary schools, the students were studying the use of “can,” so of course the Japanese teacher played a bit of Barack Obama’s speeches.  (Neither she nor I had any delusions that the kids would understand a word.  Well, except maybe “Yes, we can.”  She just wanted them to get the idea of the tone of his speeches.)  Afterwards, we practiced the phrase, “Can you play (insert sport here),” then “Yes, I can” or “No, I can’t.”  

So we go through the line of students, checking their pronunciation of the words, and not only did “Yes, I can” repeated numerous times make me feel like I was at some warped Obama rally, but several of the kids slipped up and said “Yes, WE can” and didn’t even realize it.  Oh, that was good.

Case 3: There’s a strange compunction in Japan for brave Japanese folks to approach random foreign people and try to speak English with them.  It’s very awkward.  I get that it’s difficult to interact with a native English speaker otherwise, but it’s also really odd for me to have random strangers come up and say, “Hello, my name is (insert really quickly spoken Japanese name here, which I have no chance of understanding).  Will you talk with me?”

I hate being rude, so I always say yes.  Even when the requestee is drunk, smelly, and keeps accidentally touching my things with his smelly feet.  😦

In any case, after learning that I’m American, the instant reaction is: “Oh!  Obama.”  As if there’s no chance that I could support the Republican candidate or, say, the Socialist or Libertarian candidates.  And if I tried to explain even a smidgen of the intricacies of US politics, it would not work out.  And the thing is, most of Japanese people don’t really even understand why Obama was such an amazing/historic candidate (in a homogenous society which is vehement about ignoring past misdeeds to China/Korea, the concept of state-sponsored racism/slavery is very difficult to understand) or what he represents to so many Americans, good or bad.  They just get that he’s a big deal.

In any case, just my thoughts on an interesting phenomenon.  I wonder whether there’s a China Obama-rama (my guess is: no), or a Thai Obama-rama.  Though really, no country can compete with Japan when it comes to the superficial lovin’.

From your local shopkeepers (I did not take this picture).

From your local shopkeepers (I did not take this picture).