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Ali: Letter From Obama

07/28/10 5:55PM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) Commentator and UVM Professor Saleem Ali has been reminded that despite his domestic unpopularity, President Obama remains one of the most popular U.S. president's abroad.

(ALI)  On a recent visit to Japan, I had the opportunity to visit a little fishing town on the Western coast of Honshu, called Obama.  Yes, that's right, the name of the town is Obama.
As a metaphorical testament to his global appeal, President Obama's name also has a rather Esperanto ring.  Africans and Asians alike have "Obama" in their lexicon - not to mention the Arabians who have an ominously similar common name in their directories.

There was an ancient Japanese feudal clan called "Obama" that established their castle several centuries ago on a rocky peninsula that ultimately became  the sleepy fishing town of around 50,000 inhabitants today.  Few people knew of this town until the US presidential election in 2008 but it has now found its way into the Lonely Planet travel guide.  The town has capitalized on its incidental brush with fame by printing guide maps in English and T-shirts that declare their adoration of the president.
Is this all commercialism or is there something genuine about the town's enthusiasm for the president  My anecdotal conversations with Japanese professionals would suggest that there is indeed something more profound at play.

The relationship between the Japanese and the United States is a tale of ambition and agony. Going back to the Meiji reformation in the nineteenth century, the Japanese aspired to be more like the United States.  Many Japanese immigrated to the United States during this period as well. However, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Japanese population became increasingly disillusioned with the West and a strong sense of nationalism took root.  The Japanese saw themselves as protectors of Asia from colonialism but they got consumed by fear and fury to their own detriment.

In an unfortunate confluence of circumstances World War 2 and the dawn of the nuclear age had a cataclysmic climax in Japan. Conflicting narratives have emerged about whether the dropping of the atomic bombs was essential to end the conflict or not and scholars are also divided about the veracity and extent of alleged Japanese atrocities in Korea or China. Needless to say this was a terrible time for all sides.  

What is remarkable today is how fast the Japanese have moved on and healed their relations with Americans as well as with the Chinese and the Koreans.  My Japanese friend, Dr. Satoshi Murao, whose family still lives in Hiroshima credited this to the Japanese doctrine of "wakon yousai" which means - seeking the best of the West and rejecting their worst.  In the words of MIT historian John Dower, the Japanese "embraced defeat," and transformed their nation into an economic powerhouse.  During his last visit to Japan President Obama was invited by the mayor of Hiroshima and former Tufts University Professor, Tadatoshi Akiba, to visit and make a final gesture of healing.

Despite his universal appeal, President Obama declined the invitation, fearing political fall-out. I hope he will reconsider the invitation during his next visit to the land of the rising sun where a little town proudly bears his name.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Saleem Ali at VPR-dot-net.
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