It’s no secret that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s most valuable public relations resource at the moment is his wife, Akie, whose candor contrasts vividly with the demure demeanor of most Japanese leaders’ wives. The weekly magazine Aera has suggested that Akie’s press ubiquity has been strategic in nature, meaning that the prime minister’s office not only approves of these appearances but is promoting them, despite the fact that, as Akie herself says, she is the only “opposition party” in her husband’s immediate circle.

This situation isn’t as counterintuitive as it might sound. The fact that Akie says she’s opposed to nuclear power and is trying to counter her husband’s poisoned relationship with South Korea with her own personal brand of diplomacy does not mean she is working to undermine his policies. She’s the first to admit that her views make no difference, but the media always tries to present the relationship as one where Akie functions as Abe’s conscience. His handlers can thus feel assured that she makes him look more humane, but that there is no danger of his own views being compromised.

It isn’t as if Akie is being exploited. She understands her role and her purpose. Last month, during a long radio interview available on YouTube, she told the story of a visit to the White House during the first Abe term in 2006-07. As is the protocol, she was seated next to George W. Bush at a state dinner and asked him about the most difficult thing he ever faced as president. He replied that it was the knowledge that American soldiers were being killed in Iraq, and started crying. Akie was so impressed she started crying with him. The point of the anecdote was to show how Bush was not “the kind of person” his detractors thought him to be. He was emotionally engaged in his decisions but due to political realities couldn’t reveal those feelings publicly.

It was obvious she wanted listeners to make the same connection with her husband, but she neglected to mention that politicians by definition make choices that affect lives — in Bush’s case, he really did send American men and women to their deaths — and to those affected it doesn’t matter so much how politicians “feel” about their decisions, only whether or not they can justify them.

That isn’t to say Akie doesn’t have strong, informed opinions about major issues, only that they don’t count. In an interview in the Jan. 3-10 issue of Shukan Asahi, her interlocutor, veteran journalist Soichiro Tahara, commented that her “frankness” is a “plus” for Abe, because if people think the wife of an important man is talking freely in public and voicing doubts about some of his views, it implies he is “big-hearted.” This is exactly the reaction Abe’s handlers want, and Akie played her part by claiming that what she did in public didn’t mean anything. “He doesn’t listen to things that don’t interest him,” she said, “even if I’m the one saying them.”

Tahara’s remark betrays his own view of the position of wives, and by extension women in general, in the realm of public discourse. Though he is impressed with Akie’s opinions and the fact that she reached them on her own, they only have meaning in reference to her husband’s job. He didn’t interrogate her on her opposition to nuclear energy or her affinity to South Korea, only on how those views impact her relationship with Abe. This is how the media addresses women’s increasing participation in commerce and politics, an attitude that Abe and his advisors have been trying to use to their advantage.

When new U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy made her first visit to the prime minister’s official residence in November, Abe’s staff also invited two female Cabinet members, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the highest-ranking individual in Abe’s administration, didn’t show up, supposedly because he was busy. Abe later told reporters Suga would meet with Kennedy separately. Asahi Shimbun speculated that the point of the meeting was to show up Abe’s widely touted support of women, but since Suga wasn’t there to meet the new ambassador of Japan’s most important ally, the impression reporters got was that Kennedy’s gender was a more prominent consideration — i.e., more instrumental to Abe’s needs — than her diplomatic position.

Abe’s appointment of Makiko Yamada as the first-ever female aide to a Japanese prime minister is considered a historical milestone. Yamada has been a career-track bureaucrat since 1984 and is the author of an important copyright protection bill implemented in 2002. However, the prime minister’s office tends to play up her sacrifices at the expense of her expertise. Aides are notoriously busy, and when she was selected to accompany Abe on his recent trip to Africa, the government made sure that the media was aware that Yamada’s husband, who works for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, would be taking care of their junior high school-age son while she was away, as if the public might be worried. But most people, even those in the media, probably assume that male career bureaucrats and their adolescent progeny know how to operate a microwave.

Kaori Sasaki, the CEO of a prominent human-resources company and a popular media point person for women’s issues, admitted to Asahi that Abe’s policy of boosting women’s place in society was cosmetic, but if such a policy “connects greater utilization of women to economic growth,” then she’s all for it. However, given the Liberal Democratic Party’s history of “dividing roles between men and women,” she assumes any changes will be gradual.

Akie Abe is confined to the role of better half, not because of who she is herself but because she happens to be in a position that comes with its own set of expectations. She knows there’s only so much she can do under such circumstances.

“Many women are starting businesses even while they’re raising children,” she told the Tokyo Shimbun recently. “I hope they break through.”

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