During the recently closed Koizumi Era, the media was mostly silent about the former prime minister’s marital status and lack of female companionship.

As a political issue, so-called family values carry weight and are often considered a litmus test for candidates; and Junichiro Koizumi’s personal history as a husband and father left much to be desired according to conventional thinking. Divorced and voluntarily estranged from the youngest of his three sons (the actor Kotaro Koizumi), he was never really examined by the media for his ability to empathize with the responsibilities most Japanese men his age had to assume as heads of households.

To his credit, Koizumi never discussed moral issues the way his Liberal Democratic Party colleagues often do, which distinguishes him from former President Ronald Reagan, another once-divorced national leader whose reputation as an apathetic father didn’t prevent him from preaching on the subject of the sanctity of the nuclear family. Of course, Reagan still had his second wife, Nancy, to complement his image as America’s granddad, but even if Koizumi was conspicuously single during his tenure, his own feminine tendencies made up for the lack of a real woman by his side.

The attention to dress and grooming, the public appreciation of Elvis and Verdi — all of those personal idiosyncrasies that made him popular with voters are the sorts of attributes a leader’s better half is expected to cultivate. Koizumi was essentially his own first lady.

Pundits have been saying that after Koizumi, Japanese politics can never return to the insular old-boy system that ruled before he took office. For better or worse, image really is everything now.

A few weeks before Shinzo Abe was chosen to be Koizumi’s replacement, NHK aired a special about the race for the LDP leadership. According to the old rules, 70-year-old Yasuo Fukuda should have been next in line for the premiership, but the eclipse of faction politics and the importance of maintaining party unity at all costs (Fukuda opposes visits to Yasukuni) combined to boost Abe into the prime minister’s office. He didn’t even have to campaign.

NHK didn’t claim it was Abe’s image that got him the job, but despite his reputation as a hawk and a rightwing hardliner, in the Koizumi tradition the image that has emerged is more feminine than that of the average LDP ojisan (middle-aged man), and this seems to have boosted his popularity. Now that he’s prime minister and his behavior is under close scrutiny, the things that really matter to him will become more apparent.

According to the weekly Aera, some of these things include tennis, ice cream, the fact that he doesn’t drink or smoke, the American TV series “Lost,” and his dog, a miniature dachshund named Roy. These are hardly the trappings of a traditional hardliner, and they do more to prop up his favorable media image as a “prince” with a “mask of sweetness” than any rhetoric about Japan’s need to re-arm. Even the title of the book he wrote, “Toward a Beautiful Country,” sounds less like a manifesto and more like something a female high-school student would write for a speech contest.

But Abe doesn’t need to cultivate a feminine side because he actually has a wife. After five years of a bachelor prime minister, the press has taken to Akie Abe like a starving teenager to a can of Pringles.

Last weekend, despite the momentousness of Abe’s whirlwind tour of East Asia and North Korea’s imminent test of a nuclear device, the press was mostly taken by the image of Abe holding his wife’s hand as they stepped off a plane in China. If anyone needed proof that the new prime minister was going to break with tradition, here it was.

Wives of past prime ministers kept a safe distance behind their husbands in the rare instances when they accompanied them in public. The reaction has been universally positive, ecstatic even. It’s as if having a bona fide first lady finally makes Japan a normal country. Even that notoriously combative LDP honcho-turned-television personality Koichi Hamada praised Akie’s poise and fashion sense on the TV Asahi political talk show “TV Tackle,” saying that “you won’t find another first lady in the world with the courage to go to a yakiniku (Korean BBQ) restaurant in jeans.”

Akie Abe is as much a child of privilege as her political prince husband is, and it’s well known that their marriage was at least partially arranged. Akie’s father is the former president of the confectionery giant Morinaga. It was likely her family connections, rather than her ambitions or talent, secured her a prestigious job with advertising giant Dentsu after only two years of vocational school. Subsequently, she worked as a radio DJ even though she had no experience in broadcasting or announcing.

She seems genuinely enthusiastic about her new position as first lady, and this should work to Japan’s advantage. As everyone knows, she is a huge fan of all things Korean, and the Korean press has so far given Abe the benefit of the doubt in his overtures toward their government, probably because they can’t imagine that a man who is married to such a woman would treat South Korea as shoddily as they think Koizumi did.

It will be interesting to see how Abe addresses issues related to family values and the like. He and Akie have no children, and thus represent a social trend that the government has identified as a threat to Japan’s future.

In an interview with Bungei Shunjun magazine, Akie frankly discussed their childlessness, and the women’s weeklies have already started writing about it in sympathetic tones. It is something the couple will have to deal with. Unlike Koizumi, they may have to talk about things that are really nobody’s business but their own.