TOKYO — Five hours southwest by train from Tokyo, Barack Obama's election brought cheers in a conveniently named place: Obama City.
After all, think of the merchandising possibilities: coffee mugs, T-shirts, maybe even a few more tourists for this sleepy port town of 32,185. Thanks to the president-elect, Obama City suddenly feels as though it's on the map.
But the rest of Japan has greeted the prospect of a President Barack Obama with more mixed emotions.
There are complex issues of race, a lingering resentment over the war in Iraq and a fear that an Obama administration might be more protectionist and friendly to China. Together, these concerns are conspiring to leave Japan with a feeling of insecurity on the eve of the Obama inauguration, political and cultural observers here say.
In fact, some Japanese commentators can even be heard uttering what has been almost unthinkable in the six decades since the establishment of modern Japan: Perhaps it is not in the nation's interest to be so close, and at times subservient, to the U.S.
An editorial in the Nikkei Weekly late last year summed up this sentiment. “Japanese are tired of being fed the mantra of the supreme value of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” the editorial stated.
Just a few years ago such talk was purely the domain of fringe elements such as Japan’s Communist Party, but now it has taken center stage. The emerging feeling presents the new administration in Washington with a serious challenge from one of its largest trading partners and most important allies.
Kazuko Takada, a teacher in Tokyo in her 60s, is shocked by this shift in public opinion.
“Every Sunday I go to church and pray not only for my country, Japan, but also for the United States. I have always believed that we are one family, not white and yellow,” Takada said while waiting for a friend at a Tokyo train station. “But Japanese young people today don’t have the same idea any more.”
Most Japanese have favored Republican U.S. lawmakers over Democrats, saying the latter are more protectionist and also more inclined to focus on China. But the concerns regarding Obama go beyond party affiliation.
His appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State has contributed to the worry. When Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, was in power, Japan accused the U.S. of “Japan bashing,” or blaming Tokyo for U.S. economic woes.
Then there was the charge of “Japan passing," flying over Japan and on to China without stopping to pay respects. Japanese officials fear Hillary Clinton shares her husband’s China-centric view of Asia and will once again prioritize Beijing.
Some of the discomfort with Obama is no doubt linked to his race. When you listen to Japanese speak about the issue of race, the thin layers of polite language cannot obscure a discomfort with racial diversity that is as traditionally Japanese as sushi. Listen, for example, to Satoshi Goda, a 23-year-old business student.
“Black people here have a gangster image,” Goda said. “But we Japanese understand Obama is different. He is one-half black. And we understand that he represents change, racially and in other ways.”
Beyond race, Obama will take power as Japan is consumed by a bitterness over the close U.S.-Japanese relationship and how it drew the country into supporting the war in Iraq, while offering little in return.
President George W. Bush was celebrated here for his close friendship with former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. This personal bond helped convince Japan to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Tokyo continues to provide indirect military support, despite considerable public opposition.
But when Bush removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism this past October — before the country had provided a full disclosure regarding the estimated 16 Japanese citizens North Korea kidnapped more than two decades ago — the Japanese were stunned.
Many here fear that Obama’s pledge to negotiate with the rogue nation in Japan’s backyard will serve to continue Bush’s focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program — and leave by the wayside Japan’s pressing, though admittedly local, issue of the return of abducted Japanese.
A variety of public opinion polls conducted in the months since Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism have all shown the damage: Anywhere from a quarter to more than half of Japanese believe U.S.-Japan relations are poor.
They are people like Eiko Aoyagi, a 33-year-old medical technician who lives in Tokyo, and who sounds bitter when it comes to the U.S. “Japan has been a lap dog for the U.S. Japan has been the country that just says yes to the U.S. and pays money for the U.S.’s mistakes,” Aoyagi said.
This comes at a time when the economic and cultural relationship between the two countries has shifted dramatically. Once each other’s main trading partners, both are increasingly eclipsed by China. Cultural exchanges are also waning, and the number of Japanese students studying in the U.S. has fallen 17 percent in the last five years.
The 53,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan are also a point of contention, not least because in the past two years alone, four Marines have been accused of gang-raping a 19-year-old, another was accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old, and a U.S. sailor was charged with murdering a taxi driver.
Nevertheless, there are clear opportunities for partnership.
Long before he began his campaign for the White House, Obama praised Japanese automakers for building greener cars. Japan is eager to cooperate on environmental and energy issues. In addition, Obama has spoken of nuclear disarmament, a proposal Japan, the only country in the world to suffer a nuclear attack, has repeatedly made at the United Nations.