When the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, headed off to Bali yesterday for the APEC summit he was accompanied by his wife, Akie. Mrs Abe, who also goes by her DJ handle Akky, has described herself as the opposition party at home. This is the woman who has expressed amazement that anyone’s heard of Abenomics, who opposes her husband’s support for nuclear energy and who thought that raising consumption tax – which Abe then did – would be a mistake and told him so.
She is said to be the reason why Abe, nearly 10 months into office, still hasn’t moved into the official residence. The word is that Mrs Abe prefers to stay put in the family home. Renowned for being a fan of Korean drama, she recently came in for a wave of hostile comments on Facebook for attending a festival to promote cultural exchange between Japan and South Korea at a time when relations between the two countries could at best be said to be chilly. She shrugged off the criticism, acknowledged that there are "various views" on the subject and posted a photo of herself cooking Korean bibimbap at the event. She has no fear of social media, even posting a picture of her husband fast asleep on the government jet.
The odd thing is that Akie is no anomaly. Japan has a tradition of producing free-thinking first ladies. To describe them as "off message" doesn’t begin to cover it. Straight from the school of telling it like it is, these women have an unvarnished directness that Michelle Obama would never get away with. They certainly blitz the tedious stereotype of the submissive Japanese wife.
Look at Nobuko Kan, wife of Naoto Kan, who was the man unfortunate enough to be running the country when the earthquake and tsunami struck. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he had already had to contend with a wife who expressed her loyalty by writing a book called “What on Earth Will Change in Japan Now You are Prime Minister?’. For good measure she added that given a second chance she wouldn’t marry Naoto and threw in that he couldn’t cook and had terrible dress sense.
Top of the pops though is Miyuki Hatoyama, who was off the charts when it came to leftfield comments. She is the wife of Yukio Hatoyama, the man who managed to win a stunning landslide victory for the Democratic Party after years of domination by Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. No amount of PR spin could cover for macrobiotic Miyuki’s comments, which ranged from a story that she had once been abducted by aliens, to another corker that she had met Tom Cruise in a previous life, when he was Japanese. To their credit, these powerful men haven’t tried to rein in their wives. Perhaps they know better.
Without trying to extract too much from these tales of Japan’s colourful first ladies, perhaps they do reveal something about the role of Japanese women that doesn’t make it into statistically based gender reports. There’s clearly a gap between their power at home and their status in the workplace, which, as every survey tells us, is abysmal.
It’s interesting that Shinzo Abe’s latest cause is what is being called Womenomics: addressing the substantial pay gap between Japanese men and women and the paltry representation of women in corporate management. We look forward to hearing what Akie Abe has to say about it.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle's Asia bureau chief