Raw Japan

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Japan markets Obama in masks, books and tourism

January 20, 2009

As Washington readies for the inauguration of Barack Obama, one Japanese firm is finding out how well his face sells — literally.

Obama mask factory near Tokyo

A mask factory near Tokyo is churning out Obama masks that are fast becoming the firm’s top-selling face, while others are also cashing in on the popularity of the new U.S. president.

One publisher has created a bestselling text book using Obama’s speeches to teach English.

“The Speeches of Barack Obama”, has sold more than 400,000 copies in two months, a big hit in a country where few hit novels sell more than 1 million copies a year.

“His speeches are so moving, and he also uses words such as ‘Yes, we can,’, ‘change’ and ‘hope’ that even Japanese people can memorise,” said Yuzo Yamamoto of Asahi Press, which produced the best-selling text book, which sells for 1,050 yen ($12) with a CD recording of the speeches.

“Readers have sent in postcards saying that when they heard the speeches, they were so moved and cried even though they don’t understand English very well.”

Obama covers in a Tokyo bookshop

Speeches by President George W. Bush and former nominee John Kerry’s four years ago did not have the same appeal, however, and nor do those made by Japanese politicians, Yamamoto added.

The textbook is just one example, with magazines and other books on Obama-related themes also doing well in the midst of Japan’s deepening recession.

As the publisher of a children’s book called “Obama: Yes We Can!” told the Nikkei newspaper: “Mr Obama is the saviour of the Japanese publishing industry.”

It’s not just books, either. The sleepy fishing port of Obama about 370 km (230 miles) west of Tokyo has supported the president-elect from the days when he was a long-shot candidate for the Democratic Party.

The town of just over 30,000 has hula danced, sung and generally cheered on their namesake all the way through the presidential campaign, and won a letter of thanks from the politician along the way.

“The number of people coming to Obama City has increased dramatically along with Obama’s rising popularity. It’s been booming ever since his victory in November,” says Tatsuya Sano, the owner of the Obama souvenir store, as the town gears up for a big inauguration party.

Rural Japan has been losing people for years and the current recession is not helping, so visitors like Sarah Wall, a teacher from California in town for the party, are most welcome.

“I thought it was great that the people of Obama were so excited to share the name of their town with the new president and I just thought that it’s gonna be so fun to be there to experience that cross-cultural connection and so I got on a train and made my way here.”

That kind of sentiment is money in the bank for the Ogawa Rubber Inc factory, north of Tokyo, which has sold more than 2,500 Obama face masks at a price of 2,200 yen ($24) since December.

They are on track to become the firm’s top-selling masks, replacing those of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi — a reformer who retired just over two years ago but remains popular in a country that has stumbled through three leaders since then.

 

“I believe that unlike Japanese politicians’ masks, Obama’s mask radiates something that grabs people’s hearts. I think many people do feel that energy,” said Ogawa Rubber executive director Takahiro Yagihara.

Japanese firms, of course, are not alone in capitalising on the surge in publicity for the new president. From Mexico to Moscow, companies are rolling out special Obama merchandise from Obama Russian nesting dolls to tee-shirts and a limited-edition Kenyan “Obama” beer.

Some might say it is all crass commercialism, but if Obama’s name helps in some small way to get the economy going, does that hurt anyone?

Photo credits: Rubber masks by REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao; books by REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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