The “Yes We Can” Boys of Akishima, Japan

It’s easy to be a cynic, like the person who made this ever-so-uninspiring sign . . . but . . . weird things are happening to me when I travel abroad since President Obama was elected.  I was recently at a local summer festival in Akishima, near Tokyo.  Now, just to give you some idea about the town of Akishima, it’s a good hour’s train ride from the center of Tokyo, and that’s on an express train.  They’ve got a bit of industry there, but it’s fairly “sleepy” as a town compared with Tokyo.  The big attraction for the festival, which was held at the elementary school near the train station, was a raised platform where the townspeople took turns amusing one another by belting out karaoke tunes.  My friend’s 87 year old mother snuck out of the house to go back to the festival after we’d called it quits, and we found her sipping sake and eating noodles with the over-80 crowd in the VIP tent when we finally tracked her down.

My golden hair & obviously “American” nature tend to make me stand out in a small Japanese community like Akishima, but I am usually just the object of polite stares and an occasional request to touch my naturally curly hair, which is something of a rarity in Japan.  But this time I got way more attention than I expected!  Five young boys, maybe 9 or 10 years old – but it’s hard for me to judge the age of Asian men, so they could have been in their 30’s, who knows – chased me around the school yard repeatedly shouting “Yes We Can!” & “Change!”.  I’ve been traveling to Japan just about every month for around 4 years now, and this is the first time I’ve heard someone shouting one of the slogans made famous by the US president, at least in a language I could understand.  Now that I think of it, there may have been many people shouting many things at me in Japanese, but I wouldn’t have understood a word of it until just recently.  For all I know people have been shouting famous George Bush sayings at me for years, priceless gems like “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for ‘entrepreneur’.” and “I’m a pitbull on the pant leg of opportunity.”  Hmmm, maybe not.

Japan’s fascination with President Obama doesn’t stop with wild school boys.  My colleagues at ALC Education, my agent in Japan, have a lovely office on the 19th floor of a terrific building in Kasumigaseki.  I went to buy some green tea at the Natural Lawson’s in the basement one day and noticed a facilities management company across from the convenience store had adopted the tag line “Yes we can!”, as you can see from the sign outside of their office on the first floor.  What the heck kind of name for a company is that?  Well, it’s considered “cool” to use English words in Tokyo these days, so I guess it makes sense.

But there’s more.  The workshops and programs we facilitate with high-potential leaders in international Japanese companies typically include the requirement to tackle a real project, something that seems impossible, but is more than likely merely difficult.  Since Obama came onto the scene we’ve had a team naming themselves in honor of him in around 50% of the programs, names like “Team Obama: Yes We Can” and “We Love Change”.  A cartoon of Obama even was selected as a team project logo by one team, big ears and all, to symbolize the importance of good listening to any effective leader.

Perhaps you can imagine how fascinated I am to see that the legend of Obama has inspired so many people around the world.  No matter what you think of his politics or policies, and whether he can deliver on his promises or not, I think you at least have to give the guy credit for creating a global presence that has ignited this kind of hope and possibility.  I know I found those young boys totally inspiring, and wonder what they’ll accomplish in their life because they caught a glimpse of possibility in Obama’s message.

Each day you are likely to meet people who will discourage you, not because they want to dampen your enthusiasm, but because they cannot imagine the world that you envision, or they cannot risk the disappointment of believing in something that seems so unattainable. But, no matter what happens, no matter how many of your dreams lie in ruins, I hope you will always continue to have the courage to dream again, to create a new possibility, to start fresh and say “What does this make possible that wasn’t possible before?”  You see, every defeat brings with it the seeds of the next possibility if only we have the strength to look for it among the rubble of failure.  Winston Churchill said “The true secret of success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

As leaders you have many responsibilities, but the most important daily job of a leader is to keep hope alive.  When hope dies, nothing is possible.  As long as there is hope, people will continue to strive toward their goals.  My final wish for you . . . may you live your life so that you can look back at the end and say “I have no regrets!”

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