Former DJ shakes up Japan's dour politics as first time First Lady
JAPAN has a "First Lady" for the first time in its history with the flamenco-dancing former radio DJ Akie Abe taking the country by storm.
While Japanese wives have traditionally remained smiling and nodding in the background, particularly in the male-oriented world of politics, 44-year-old Mrs Abe is clearly taking her cues from other members of the global first wives club.
The Japanese media has focused on her public appearances, repeatedly showing images of her holding hands with husband, Shinzo Abe, as they disembarked from the Japanese government aircraft that took them to Beijing for their first foreign diplomatic foray earlier this month.
She has let slip personal details that would normally remain hidden: that she likes to drink - in contrast to her husband - dances flamenco and is a compulsive soap opera viewer.
Since returning from China, via Seoul, where the prime minister and his wife reprised their tasks, Mrs Abe has benefited from the appointment of two full-time advisers that elevate the prime minister's wife to a key role in the administration, fulfilling a similar role to Cherie Blair and Laura Bush.
A former foreign ministry bureaucrat has taken on the task of providing tips on etiquette when surrounded by foreign dignitaries and drawing up her schedule. A former flight attendant has also been appointed to manage her wardrobe.
"I suppose it's a quite clever ploy and deliberate effort to create the concept of a first lady, a post which is very good for the public image of Mr Abe and his 'presidency'," said Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at the Doshisha University in Kyoto.
"It's all part and parcel of the show. It's not unprecedented for a Japanese prime minister's wife to accompany him on an overseas trip, but the way they put on the show of holding hands is absolutely unheard of."
She added: "The echoes are of the US presidency and it is both deflecting questions being asked of her husband, and the criticism of the decision to drop discussions on reform of the Imperial Household Law to allow a woman to sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
"The Japanese public wanted a woman leader and Mrs Abe has become that surrogate."
And while Japan's women might be interested in whether Mrs Abe chooses her husband's clothes or her new hairstyle, Prof Hama said: "Women who have already made their mark in Japanese society and are doing well are cringing at this artificial creation."
Even before Mr Abe had been identified as a potential leader of the country, the media had identified them as one of the nation's most attractive couples.
She has also won over a few hearts through an interview with the Bungei Shunju magazine that was spread over 12 pages and told of her sorrow at the failure of fertility treatment that means she and her husband will remain childless.
Mrs Abe also revealed the pressure of marrying into one of Japan's political dynasties - her husband's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was prime minister in the 1950s - but revealed that her husband has a soft side that is in contrast with the hard-line nationalist image he has been given.
'Shin-chan' - the diminutive, child's name she apparently calls him at home - is apparently gentle, irons his own trousers and lights an aromatherapy candle when he takes a bath. And she gives him a stomach massage after breakfast each morning.
"Interviews like that are simply a charm offensive that are designed to show their candour and make them appear to be in touch with the ordinary people," said Prof Hama. But Mrs Abe has apparently had coaching from the man who elevated Japanese politicians to media stars in their own right - she revealed that before her husband became prime minister, she visited his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, to ask for suggestions as to how to care for her husband when he was in power. Clearly aware that behind every successful man, there should be a good woman, Mr Koizumi told her that when her husband has a bad day, she should give him a cuddle.
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