Almost Famous: Japan's Obama Impersonator

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Chicago Tribune / MCT /Landov

Nozomu Sato, a Japanese comedian, impersonates President-Elect Barack Obama in Chicago, Illinois, in October 2008

On November 4, as Obama was celebrated for his election by 240,000 supporters at Chicago's Grant Park, there was one man watching the event on television 10,000km away who was thrilled to hear the news. In a Tokyo apartment, his wife congratulated him in a flood of tears, and he also wept over the victory. Thanks to Barack Obama, Japanese comedian Nozomu Sato is having the most successful moment in his 20-year career. Sato, 43, widely known as Notchi, is now Japan's own full-time Barack Obama impersonator.

Yes, even in Japan, the President-Elect of the United States is a media darling. Well before this month's election, Obama fever was in full swing in a small town in western Japan called Obama, where residents formed hula teams in homage of the politician's Hawaii years. Ten months ago, Notchi didn't even know who Barack Obama was until his wife mentioned he looked like the up-and-coming politician. "I thought Obama was a pro wrestler or a fighter or something," the comedian recalls, wearing the dark suit — originally purchased for weddings and funerals — that he uses for his act. Now, he says, "I love Obama. The more I impersonate him the more I actually start feeling as though I'm the real Obama." (See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's win.)

His enthusiasm is apparently contagious. Since he started the act in February, the number of daily hits on his professional website jumped from 200 to 100,000. Last month, Notchi only had seven days in which he did not appear on Japanese television. (This time last year, he only had seven days of work booked — total.) And he's winning some big fans. When Notchi met Will Smith on a popular afternoon TV show in August, Smith told him, "I will vote for you."

Eighteen centimeters shorter and 20 kg lighter and, to state the obvious, Japanese, Notchi is not exactly a dead ringer for his muse. But he does bear a resemblance that is propped up by some signature moves: clenching his hand lightly and holding up his index finger while repeating, "Yes, we can! Change we need!"; stating, "My name is Obama!," while narrowing his eyes slightly and looking into the distance; and walking lightly with one hand in his pocket — a stance that has been praised by the security guards at Obama's Chicago home, who said that's exactly how Obama walks out of the door every day. Notchi's tip on Being Obama: all of the above should be done calmly, firmly and with confidence. (See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)

By Election Night in the U.S., the comedian had put the presidential seal on his growing popularity. A Japanese reality show called "Devil's Contract," which helps Japanese celebrities realize their dreams, aired an episode in which they had sent Notchi to the United States to try to meet the then-senator and have him sign a contract endorsing the impersonation. If Notchi failed, he promised he would fly to Arizona to deliver a pro-Obama speech in front of John McCain's supporters. "I was fully prepared to do it and have stones thrown at me," Notchi said later.

Despite not totally looking the part, the man wearing his wife's handmade U.S. flag pin on his funeral suit lapel was (mostly) given a warm welcome during his first stop in Chicago. He stopped in to see Zariff, the Chicago barber who has been cutting Obama's hair for the past 14 years. He sat on the same chair where Obama usually sits and got the same haircut — with scissors made in Japan — exactly the way Obama likes it. Between getting the Obama cut, eating his favorite food at his favorite Chicago diner, and sitting on the bench at the park where Obama used to bring his then-girlfriend Michelle, Notchi got plenty of inspiration for his performance — and plenty of attention. Reporters from the Chicago Tribune shadowed him during the nine-day trip.

But getting face time with America's rising political star proved more difficult. In New York, Notchi tried so hard to approach Obama at front of the Hammerstein Ballroom, where he was attending a Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen concert, he had guns pointed at him by policemen. He went to Obama's house in Chicago, but ended up being taken to a police station for questioning. (The director and the camera crew ran away when he got caught). Finally, three weeks before the election, his luck turned at a rally in St. Louis. The crowd was a 100,000 strong, but Obama's supporters were helpful — even to his impersonator — and pushed Notchi to the front row. Notchi managed to shake hands with Obama (and even touched his wedding ring!) and shouted at him, "My name Obama! My name Obama!" Holding Notchi's hand, Obama looked at him and smiled. He pointed at himself and pointed to Notchi, and said, "Oh, you are Obama, is that right?," and laughed. Notchi was so excited that he forgot to get Obama to sign the contract, but the program nevertheless considered his endeavor a success.

It's been busy times ever since. After Obama's election, Notchi accosted an unsuspecting Prime Minister Taro Aso for another episode of "Devil's Contract" at a shopping arcade in Tokyo to show him the photo he had taken with the President-Elect in St. Louis. In fact, today nearly all of Notchi's comedic bookings come from this new gig, and he hopes the work will keep coming. "I will be Obama for the next four years," he says, "If lucky, even eight!"

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See pictures of Barack Obama's victory celebration in Chicago.