Kevin Folley, a member of the White House advance team, stood on the stage of the Shimoda Middle School gymnasium this morning and instructed the crowd on the coming festivities.
"This is the one chance in your life to ask the president of the United States a question," he said, instructing those who wanted to question President Carter to raise their hands. Arrayed before him on folding chairs were some 500 well-dressed Shimoda citizens fanning themselves furiously for relief from the heat and humidity.
No hands were raised and Foley asked again as his audience listened through earphones to a simultaneous Japanese translation. Finally, a hand or two was raised.
"There has to be more than two or there people who want to ask a question," Foley said in obvious exasperation. "I'm encouraging you; I'm begging you."
In time, Foley got the requisite number of volunteers and the stage was set for the most unusual "town meeting" of the Carter presidency.
Had it been one of the more than half-dozen such town meetingsin the president has held in the United States, the questions would have been different. Americans are preoccupied with their own problems - with gas lines and high prices and the turmoil that is causing - and would have demanded answers on the issue.
But not the people of Shimoda, a coastal city of 31,000 where in 1854 a fleet commanded by Commodore Mathew Perry landed, opening Japan to the West. Perhaps it was the natural courtesy of the Japanese people, not wishing to ask an impolite question of a visiting dignitary. Perhaps it was the reticence that Foley at first encountered even as he urged the audience to "ask any question you want no matter how tough they may be"
Perhaps it was simple human curiosity about a man they had read about the seen on television, leaving the weighty issues of energy and international economics to be thrashed out alone by Carter and the other leaders who were to meet Thursday at a summit conference in Tokyo.
In any case, what the people of Shimoda wanted to know from Jimmy Carter was about his youth and growing up, his hopes and aspirations, his advise on family life and the rearing of childredn.
"What sort of games did you play when you were small?" a questioner asked.
Baseball and basketball, Carter replied, adding that he liked to fish and wander in the woods.
"I wonder if you will feel you want to keep Amy close to you, will not want her to go away to someone else?" another asked. "How do you feel?"
In time, Carter replied, he hoped his 11-year-old daughter Amy - who sat with her mother in the front row of the gymnasium - would "find a good young man and get married and move away. We would obviously like her to visit us often after she does so."
So it went for an hour. Carter was asked what he remembered from his boyhood, what his dreams were then, how he had educated his children.
A young woman, posing the most unexpected question of the day, asked: "Suppose you are not married and suppose you fall in love with a colored girl, what would you do? Would you marry her without any resistance?"
The president replied by recalling the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in the United States, saying that more progress needed to be made in those areas. He added:
"As far as intermarriages are concerned, I have never been in love with any other woman except my wife. But I would hope that in the true spirit of equality and in an absence of racial prejudice, that I would not let the color of a woman's skin interfere with my love for her if I felt that way."
Only twice did the questions touch on some of the major issues facing the leaders of the industrialized democracies meeting in Tokyo. Carter was asked about human rights, and replied with a plea for a "worldwide effort" to relieve the plight of Southeast Asian refugees.
Another questioner, who identified himself as a tangerine farmer, politely complained about the export of U.S. agricultural products to Japan, and then applied for a job on the Carter family farm in Georgia if the president would guarantee wages "enough to support myself, my wife and my children."
Carter defended U.S. export policies, saying the amount of American citrus products sold in Japan "has been greatly exaggerated." As for the job application, he said, "You will be much more prosperous in Japan growing superb tangerines than you would to come to my very poor farm in Georgia" to try to grow peanuts.
When it was over, the president returned to his waiting helicopter to return to Tokyo and the difficult issues of the summit. The town meeting was televised live throughout Japan and there was no way to measure the impact of either the questions or the answers. But American officials said they were pleased.
Said one White House aide: The feeling of our embassy people here is that the questions reflected the sorts of traditional interests of Japanese society and the opportunity for an American president to respond in the way he did was probably more help to them and to U.S. interests in Japan than if he had spent three hours answering questions about trade and Asian security." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Mrs. Carter and Amy listen with Shimoda school children as President Carter answers questions. Translations are received through ear plugs. AP/UPI