Tokyo — Stop the presses — Japan’s got its own “Joe Biden.”
Thanks to the vagaries of Japan’s complex written language, an obscure provincial mayor has suddenly gained his 15 minutes of fame after discovering his name can also be read as the moniker of America’s president-elect.
“I feel we have a bond,” Mayor Yutaka Umeda, aka, “Joe Biden,” of Yamato town, in southwest Japan, was quoted as saying by local media. “When I heard (Biden) had won, it was like a personal victory for me, too.”
The revelation hasn’t boosted tourism, yet, but town general affairs director Hiroto Kudo was hopeful. “We’re getting national exposure, and that’s really appreciated,” he told CBS News.
The Japanese writing system uses Chinese ideographs or characters, and any single character can be read numerous ways, which is why business cards often include pronunciation guides for personal names and Japan’s rich trove of homonyms is frequently mined for humorous effect.
“Umeda,” which literally (and nonsensically) means “plum rice field,” can also be read “Bai-den.” The 73-year-old mayor’s given name, “Yutaka,” can also pronounced “Jo.”
While much of the reaction online was a collective groan — not everyone goes for corny jokes — at least one person suggested Yamato ink a sister-city agreement with Scranton, Pennsylvania, the president-elect’s hometown.
“There were many suggestions,” Umeda told the Reuters news agency, with a smile. “Some said I should go to Washington and meet him, or invite him here.”
Other suggestions were more tongue-in-cheek: One commenter warned Umeda to “work hard, so you don’t end up getting called ‘Sleepy Joe!'”
Another Japanese wise-cracker got caught up in the wordplay, suggesting the mayor move three hours away. “That way, you could be Joe Baiden in the ‘USA’!” The city of Usa is located in northeast Kyushu.
Until now, Yamato’s main claim to fame was calling itself “the navel of Kyushu island,” a tribute to its location smack in the middle of Japan’s southwest landmass, nestled deep in the mountains. Population 15,000, Yamato also boasts a 19th-century aqueduct, scenic views and outdoor recreation, but normally it’s not top-of-mind for many people here.
This is not Japan’s first go-round riding presidential coattails.
When the rural(“little beach”) in the central part of the country got wind of an Illinois senator’s candidacy, local businessmen quickly set up a “non-official support committee,” even before the 2008 election, which earned them a letter of appreciation from Barack Obama during the primaries.
During the eight years of the Obama administration, the seaside town of about 30,000 went on to enthusiastically, even aggressively, promote its fortuitous handle, taking up hula dancing and using the 44th president’s image to plug everything from lacquered chopsticks to t-shirts and cakes.
As for the constituents of “Joe Baiden,” the town’s general affairs director Kudo told CBS News that no such grandiose plans were afoot. For locals, he said, “it’s just a fun topic.”
But the mayor himself appears to be hoping for more than a bit of light entertainment. At the very least, he’d like to open a channel for Biden-Baiden communications.
“I hope I can call him, although I’m not sure if I can reach him,” he told Reuters on Wednesday. “I want to at least write a letter to him.”