The First Lady Steps Out

The White House has boasted its share of charismatic First Ladies; think Eleanor Roosevelt or Jackie Kennedy. But Japan has never seen the like--at least before last September, when Shinzo Abe became prime minister and unleashed his charming spouse on the nation. In previous eras, the main job of a political wife was to look pleasant and stay a respectful three steps behind her man. Trying out new flower arrangements was as edgy as it got. But Akie Abe is cut from a whole new cloth. She's got something to say and she's not afraid to say it--whether in a foreign language, in her own refined Japanese or on her blog. "I don't think I'm especially open," she said recently in an exclusive NEWSWEEK interview. "But because I'm a relatively young prime minister's wife, that has given me a lot of exposure in the media, so some people may see me like that."

In a country where all public figures tend to sidestep delicate topics, Mrs. Abe, 44, approaches them head on. Some commentators speculate that it's part of a strategy to raise the profile of her husband--an archconservative blue blood who's trying to convince a skeptical public of his reformist credentials. Whatever the motive or the risk--some see a backlash brewing--Mrs. Abe is making it work so far, creating a new style of public figure that Japan has never seen before. Such a young, glamorous and plain-spoken First Lady is unprecedented in much of Asia, whether it's Japan, Thailand, South Korea or Taiwan. Indeed, the only countries in the region to have broken the pattern are those with strong historical ties to British or American culture, such as India (where Sonia Gandhi holds sway) and the Philippines (home of the notorious Imelda Marcos).

It's not just that Akie Abe is the well-bred daughter of one of Japan's richest industrial families. Or that she's got a confident fashion sense, as happy in designer jeans as in chic monochrome suits. She also stands out for her accessibility and youthful charm, which contrast sharply with her frumpy predecessors. Mrs. Abe is at least a decade younger than all former First Ladies. Her husband, at 52, is also Japan's youngest prime minister ever, and the first born after World War II. So it shouldn't be surprising that she has been spotted driving her own car to official functions. She's a bon vivant who dances the hula, performs drinking duties for her teetotaler husband at social events and was once a DJ at an FM radio station. "She's modern, and [has] no problem getting along well with different types of people," says an editor at the women's magazine Josei Seven (who refused to be quoted by name, citing company policy). "When we think of earlier First Ladies, we usually picture elderly women." The last time NEWSWEEK interviewed a Japanese prime minister's wife, a decade ago, Kumiko Hashimoto confessed that she wanted to attend fewer official functions but knew it was her main job. Taking a stand on a controversial subject was unthinkable. Little wonder most Japanese barely remember her.

They seem likely to remember Mrs. Abe, however. Despite breaking so many molds, she has thus far managed to gen-erate amazingly good press. "Akie has Japan swooning," noted the daily Maini-chi Shimbun in October. Commentators estimate that Mrs. Abe's popularity may be boosting her husband's ratings by as much as 20 percent. Josei Seven has raved that "she makes us feel proud to be Japanese," and in November, a survey of "ideal couples" conducted by a foundation that promotes marriage ranked the Abes third (no other political pairs made it into the top 10).

Mrs. Abe is proving as popular abroad as she is at home, even in countries that have strained relations with Japan. On an October trip to Seoul, she wowed the local media by deftly reciting a poem in Korean (she's been taking lessons). In China, which she visited on the same trip, her wardrobe and spontaneity prompted a leading paper to dub her a "Japanese Hillary Clinton."

Actually, there's no perfectly apt American comparison. Unlike Clinton in her First Lady days, Abe has so far shown no interest in hard policy issues such as health insurance, much less in running for office herself. She is probably more like Laura Bush, using her power and charm to push issues like education for the underprivileged and the promotion of Japanese culture abroad. Yu Uchiyama, a professor of Japanese politics at the University of Tokyo, argues that the two women are linked by the way they show respect for their husbands even as they stake out their own positions. This may explain why, like Laura Bush, Akie Abe has also managed to dodge the attacks directed at her partner. In her NEWSWEEK interview, Abe said that she always tries to be supportive. And she seemed to welcome the Laura Bush comparison; in fact, she said that her U.S. counterpart's willingness to listen was a sign of an almost Japanese modesty.

Still, one reason for Mrs. Abe's popularity is her habit of occasionally dropping details about her private life with Japan's most powerful man. The prime minister irons his own pants, she solemnly informed the press in October, and likes to light an aromatherapy candle when he kicks back in the bath. Most strikingly, in a nation where infertility remains a deeply touchy subject, she recently wrote a magazine article describing the intense pressure she'd felt to bear an heir to her husband, the scion of a leading political dynasty. She'd tried fertility treatments, she confessed, but to no avail. "I think I should accept my fate, that I am the wife of a politician who became prime minister, and that we did not have the gift of bearing children," she wrote. As for adoption, she admitted, "I didn't have the confidence to raise a child."

The Abes' obvious affection for one another has also won them fans. On the Beijing trip, they emerged from their plane holding hands, shattering a Japanese taboo. (The Abes let it be known that they'd taken the idea from the Clintons.) Small wonder that the couple has inspired a set of souvenir cookies.

The indiscretions, admissions and public displays of affection may seem haphazard, but they are more likely part of a very conscious strategy on the couple's part. Uchiyama notes that Shinzo Abe's predecessor and political patron, Junichiro Koizumi, made it his central goal to radically reform the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. A confirmed bachelor who often turned up alone at international events when other leaders brought their wives, Koizumi represented something new on a personal level as well, cutting a dash with his long hair and Elvis impersonations. Now it's time for the more straitlaced Abe to push ahead with the transformation. Abe's challenge is to reassure his more conservative supporters while still signaling to Japan's increasingly restive voters that he'll follow through on Koizumi's reforms. "Abe is supposed to represent a new Liberal Democratic Party," says Uchiyama. "His administration's raison d'être is that it's new. He appears to be showing that through his relationship with his wife, who is not subordinate but rather an equal partner."

Uchiyama also speculates that there may be "an element of performance on his part in situations like that [walking hand in hand], which he is using to stress the image of generational change." Indeed, Mitsushige Tsuruno, a public-relations consultant, argues that "Abe has been emphasizing the importance of family and work-life balance as a policy."

Is the prime minister leaning on his wife to bolster his popularity? In recent months, thanks to a series of blunders, Abe's standing has fallen 30 percentage points, from a high of nearly 70 percent in October. No polls have yet been done on Mrs. Abe, which is itself indicative of Japan's traditional view of First Ladies' insignificance. But insiders agree that she's been a boon to her husband. "No other First Lady has ever received as much attention as she has, and Abe could take advantage of it more strategically," says Tsuruno.

This strategy, however, could become dangerous. Akie Abe's unprecedented prominence reflects in part the slowly growing status of women in Japanese society. Female entrepreneurs are no longer exotic exceptions, nor are female politicians--even outspoken ones like Yuriko Koike, the prime minister's special adviser for National Security Affairs. That said, Japan still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality. It lags badly compared with other leading industrialized countries; for example, the U.N. Gender Empowerment Measure Index ranked Japan 42nd out of 80 countries in 2006. Kichiya Kobayashi, who has written several books on prime ministers' wives, says that a backlash against Mrs. Abe has already begun and blames her for her inability to read the public. As one marketing director in his mid-50s puts it, Mrs. Abe seems like a nice lady but should stay out of politics and remain an oku-sama --a term that implies a wife who is "behind" or "beneath" her husband.

According to Uchiyama, putting Akie Abe front and center is "a double-edged sword. If it places too much emphasis on a fresh approach, the Abe administration could find itself in a bind. After all, he's a conservative, and his support comes from conservatives." One magazine aimed at middle-aged salarymen greeted the Abes' hand-holding initiative with scorn: "Do you ever walk along hand in hand with your spouse in public?" (The implied answer, of course, was no.) Mrs. Abe is aware of the dangers she faces. "I wasn't elected to this job, so I do have to take criticism into account," she told NEWSWEEK. "But I wouldn't want to quit just because somebody said something a little bit critical." Nevertheless, her openness has already gotten her into trouble. After she started her blog, she posted photos of a moderately lavish Christmas meal the First Couple had shared with a famous singer--and suddenly found herself attacked for her elitism.

This points to another liability Mrs. Abe must confront: her posh background. At a time when more and more Japanese are starting to worry about income inequality, too much glamour at the top may strike a sour note. Here the First Lady is vulnerable: the daughter of the onetime president of Morinaga, a major confectionery maker, she attended a prestigious private school. After graduating from junior college she went to work for Dentsu, Japan's largest ad agency. It was her boss there who introduced her to Abe, then working as an aide to his father, who was foreign minister. (Shinzo Abe's grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, who had been prime minister in the 1950s.) Shinzo and Akie married in 1987 after two years of courtship, and she quit her job to become the wife of a would-be politician. "I said to myself, 'What an extraordinary [family] I've married into'," she told one interviewer, recalling a wedding party attended by 3,000 supporters.

Such details could provide plenty of ammunition for the Abes' enemies, especially if Japan's growing income gap becomes a factor in elections for the upper house of Parliament scheduled for this summer. The prime minister needs to make good on his promise to continue Koizumi's structural reforms while simultaneously reassuring those who haven't yet felt the benefits of the country's economic recovery. (Employers have yet to translate healthy profits into higher wages for their workers.) For the time being, however, Akie Abe seems likely to forge ahead--as she was recently advised to do by someone with a bit more experience on the job. That would be Laura Bush, whom Mrs. Abe met during lunch at a recent summit meeting in Hanoi. "She told me, 'Just keep doing what you are already doing. Just do what you've been interested in'," says Abe. In other words, don't expect to see her walking behind her husband any time soon.