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|| News Item: Posted 2009-03-10

The Obama (Japan) Inauguration
By Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

Obama, Fukui Prefecture, Japan: (left-right) Americans, Alcillena Wilson, Lucia Brea, Ashley Hayes and Sara Wall celebrate during an Obama inauguration viewing party at Hotel Sekumiya.
Since I was already heading to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan to do some research on a personal project, I decided to take a side trip and be somewhere different for the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States. It was surely going to be a historical event so rather than be one of a thousand journalists, I thought it would be great to be somewhere I could get a completely different perspective. So I made arrangements to be in Obama, Japan.

It was a crazy idea since I had a late assignment on Saturday night and it takes almost half a day just to get to Japan, another 5 hours to get to Obama from my friend's apartment and they are already 17 hours ahead of the west coast. But I have never claimed to be sane. So I boarded my flight Sunday and arrived in Tokyo on Monday afternoon, spent the night at my friend's apartment and jumped on the first train out of Tokyo station and 4.5 hours later, I was in Obama, Japan before noon.

After dumping my bags at my hotel I wandered the streets to see what I could find that was related to the soon-to-be-President Barack Obama. I went to the tourist information center just outside of the train station to get a map (in English) and found out there was a local gift store, Wakasaya, that sold "I Love Obama" omiyage (O-mee-YAH-ge : souvenirs). Cool! So off I went.

When I arrived, a Japanese photographer was shooting pictures of the omiyage. The selection was quite interesting. There were the usual t-shirts and stickers with the "I Love Obama" logo printed on them, but there were also hashi (chopsticks), hachimakis (headbands), senbei (rice cookies), manju (rice cakes) and bread-in-a-can. What? Bread-in-a-can? I still don't understand that one, but it does exist.

Outside, a news crew was interviewing Sara Wall, an American from Santa Barbara, Calif., who was traveling through Asia for six months and decided to come to Obama for the inauguration. She said if McCain/Palin had won, she was not going back home until they were out of office. I guess lucky for her, she can go home whenever she wants.

Shortly after interviewing her, the TV crew interviewed the storeowner, Tatsuya Sano, who is a big supporter of the "Obama for Obama" tourism campaign. Shoko Hashinaga, a reporter for TV Kanazawa donned an Obama mask and wielded a suit-on-a-stick while she interviewed Sano-san. It was obviously a very lighthearted interview.

Since I was semi-officially on an assignment with two newspapers interested in publishing my story (, I had my friend in Tokyo arrange an interpreter for me so that I could get a Japanese perspective. I speak some Japanese, but not enough to fully understand a native speaker. So I met my interpreter at the train station and her friend drove us to the celebration at the Hagaji Temple 20 minutes away.

A funny thing happened on the way to the temple. The map I had wasn't exactly drawn to scale nor did it accurately display the roads. You guessed it, we got lost. So as we're driving around trying to find our way, I learned that my interpreter is a Japanese American from Michigan who was teaching English at a local junior high school and doesn't really speak Japanese. Huh? Well, that is not going to help me with my interviews. Apparently some things got lost in translation between my friend, the vice principal, the interpreter and me.

Photo by Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

Obama, Japan: "I Love Obama" senbei (rice cookie) and hashi (chopsticks).
And it gets better. After we finally arrive at our destination, she says that she is tired and she and her friend were going to go back home. Huh? I didn't say it out loud, but I was thinking to myself how the heck are we (Sara and I) going to get back to Obama?

Well, I couldn't really worry about that. I had other things to worry about. I was late and missed the beginning of the celebration and had some catching up to do. My new problem was everyone talks too fast for me and I wouldn't be able to piece together enough Japanese to understand anything they were saying. Minor detail! Did I mention that I was doing double duty as both the writer and the photographer? Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, so hopefully I can at least make a good snap.

Luckily, my friend in Tokyo got an advance copy of the evenings events and translated them for me, so at least I knew the schedule of the events. Fireworks, hula dances by the Obama Girls and Boys and the ringing of the peace bell were on my list of things to shoot.

I had missed most of the speakers, so perhaps being late was a blessing. Up next were the fireworks. Cool. Fireworks usually make good pictures. Everyone then turns around and looks back toward the city. Darn! There are trees blocking the view and the bursts are a mile away and are just specks through the tree branches. Crap! One photo-op down the drain. Next up, the ringing of the peace bell.

I still didn't have a picture showing the crowd, so I positioned myself behind the bell looking back towards the TV crews and the people surrounding the bell with a corner of the temple in the background. It's clean, simple and gave a sense of place. Then someone walked around to my side and stands in my frame. My clean shot was gone, but at least they were wearing an "I Love Obama" hapi coat, so it actually helped make it a better picture. Yay for me!

The Obama Girls and Boys were next. They're important because of President Obama's Hawaiian upbringing and one of the newspapers running the story was the Honolulu Star Bulletin. I make some decent photos of their performance and then the celebration is over.

For me, it's crunch time. I had to find a Japanese who spoke English! My first instinct was to approach the Obama Girls because I had questions about their hula performance and since they listened to Hawaiian music, I was hoping one of them spoke English. After asking 4 or 5 of them, I finally found someone who spoke pretty good English. It wasn't perfect, but it was a heck of a lot better than my Japanese.

Photo by Darrell Miho

Photo by Darrell Miho

Obama, Fukui Prefecture, Japan: Hagaji Temple priest Tamagawa Shouryuu, rings the Peace Bell during the President Barack Obama Inauguration Celebration at the Hagaji Temple.
Next on the agenda, find an American. Sara was out, since I came with her. Enter Ashley Hayes, my angel in disguise, who happens to be an African American who works in Nagano and is bilingual. Jackpot! I got an African American perspective, she was able to find me another English speaking Japanese person and later on, she would serve as my interpreter at the inauguration viewing party. Woo hoo!

She really did turn out to be our angel because we got a ride back to Obama with her friend that she came with, but only after we lifted her friend's car out of a ditch that she drove into when she parked her car. At least we were in Japan and her car was the size of a Mini Cooper and not a Hummer.

As we were driving back to Obama, I found out the real reason why my interpreter didn't want to stay for the celebration. It turns out that Alcillena Wilson, Ashley's friend who's car we just un-ditched, knew my interpreter and told me that my interpreter is a hardcore Republican and can't stand Obama. So rather than suffer through the agony of an Obama celebration, she feigned fatigue in order to save face and not be subjected to any Obama questioning. It all makes sense now!

The last thing on the agenda was the inauguration viewing party at Hotel Sekumiya. Since noon Eastern Time was 2am Japan time, I had several hours to kill before the viewing party, so I headed back to my hotel to start writing my story and editing photos.

After a few hours of work, I headed over to the viewing party. There were about 15 people seated around a flat screen television in the hotel lobby watching the live telecast. The four Americans, Sara, Ashley, Alcillena and Lucia Brea, sat in the front row with a flag on their laps and Obama on their shirts. There were plenty of cheers, flag waving and spontaneous chants of "O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!" There were probably just as many media people documenting this momentous occasion as there were celebrants.

It was quite the experience to see not only Americans but also Japanese truly excited about the events that took place that day in Washington, D.C. They stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to watch an American president get sworn in halfway around the world.

We really do live in a small world. What happens in America affects what happens in Japan. Japan is also suffering an economic recession. The Japanese people, not just in Obama, but also all over the country, are hopeful that President Barrack Obama can do something that will not only change America, but also change the world.

(Darrell Miho is a Southern California-based freelance photographer. He is also the director of the Garrett Miho Foundation To read more about Darrell's trip to Japan, check out his blog at:

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