National / Politics

Support act: Behind every Japanese prime minister is a fascinating first lady

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

When Chizuko Obuchi’s husband, Keizo, became prime minister of Japan in July 1998 and the couple moved into the official residence, she was taken aback by what she found.

“People from overseas might be surprised to hear it, but there was absolutely no one and nothing there,” Obuchi recalls, more than 20 years later. “Everyone assumes that someone helps you to move into the prime minister’s official residence, but there was no one.

“There was no furniture,” she says. “I used to put on my apron every day and wipe down the tatami mats. Government officials would ask me why I was wearing an apron and I would tell them it was because I was cleaning every day.”

It is difficult to imagine U.S. first ladies Melania Trump or Michelle Obama scrubbing the floors of the White House, but then the role of a Japanese prime minister’s wife has traditionally been a low-key one.

Unlike in the United States, where first ladies are famous figures in their own right, the wives of Japanese prime ministers have traditionally stayed so far out of the spotlight as to be practically invisible. Former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s wife, Yoko, was so unassuming that U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton reportedly once walked right past her after failing to recognize her as the hostess of the event she was attending.

Kakuei Tanaka, who was prime minister from July 1972 to December 1974, didn’t even bother taking his wife to official functions, bringing along his daughter, Makiko, instead. Junichiro Koizumi, who was in office from April 2001 to September 2006, was a divorcee who lived with his sisters and happily turned up to state events alone.

The role played by Japanese prime ministers’ wives has developed over time, and Akie Abe, the wife of current leader Shinzo Abe, commands a much higher public profile than most of her predecessors. Behind the scenes, however, they have always had a crucial part to play.

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto shows off his cowboy boots as he poses with U.S. President Bill Clinton, first lady Hillary Clinton and his wife, Kumiko, during a state visit in 1997.
Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto shows off his cowboy boots as he poses with U.S. President Bill Clinton, first lady Hillary Clinton and his wife, Kumiko, during a state visit in 1997. | AP

Kumiko Hashimoto met her future husband, Ryutaro, who went on to become Japan’s prime minister from January 1996 to July 1998, when their relatives arranged for them to go on a date. Kumiko’s first impression was that he was an arrogant attention-seeker, but by the end of the evening he had started to intrigue her and she agreed to meet him again.

At the time, Hashimoto was already a Diet lawmaker for the Liberal Democratic Party. He also came from an illustrious political family and his father, Ryogo, was a former Cabinet minister.

So when he and Kumiko got married in 1966, about half a year after meeting for the first time, the wedding gave her a preview of what life would be like in the public spotlight.

“The guests of honor at the wedding were the prime minister at the time, Eisaku Sato, and his wife, Hiroko, so there was a lot of attention,” Kumiko Hashimoto says. “There were a lot of politicians there and only a small number of my family. It was tough. I didn’t know if my marriage could be a success if I couldn’t even get through the reception, so I tried my hardest. We had invited about 500 people.

“It wasn’t until after we got married that I found out how hard elections and other things like that were,” she says. “I hadn’t really thought about it before. Ignorance is bliss.”

Male Japanese politicians traditionally rely heavily on their wives to canvass support during election campaigns. While the husband is the face of the operation, his wife is responsible for the grass-roots work behind the scenes, cultivating and maintaining relationships among the electorate. This can involve door-to-door visits, attending weddings and funerals, and even giving speeches on behalf of the husband.

Former first lady Kumiko Hashimoto
Former first lady Kumiko Hashimoto | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Kumiko’s support allowed Hashimoto to climb the political ladder, and he held several Cabinet positions before becoming prime minister when predecessor Tomiichi Murayama stepped down. Hashimoto’s Cabinet experience allowed Kumiko to observe the demands placed on a prime minister’s wife from the sidelines and, when her husband took office, she had a wealth of background knowledge to draw on.

Nothing, however, could truly prepare her for life in the eye of the storm.

“The people from my husband’s constituency in Okayama were really happy about him becoming prime minister, and they wanted to come to the official residence to have a look around,” she says. “It was up to me to entertain them. Then, of course, I had an official program as well. About a week after my husband became prime minister, we had an official visit from the prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto.

“Things happen every day and you don’t even have time to think about the fact that it could end at any time,” she says. “I just lived day by day.”

The prime minister traditionally lives and works in a compound that houses the Prime Minister’s Office, known as the kantei, and residence, known as the kōtei.

The original buildings, which are across the street from the National Diet Building in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, were constructed in 1929 and heavily influenced by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. In 2002, the original kantei was renovated and repurposed to become the official residence, and a new Prime Minister’s Office was built next door.

The official residence has a colorful and somewhat grisly history. It was the site of two coups d’etats in the 1930s, the first of which resulted in the assassination of several government officials and Cabinet members, including then-Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. Legend has it that the building is haunted.

Prime ministers stayed at the official residence only intermittently until around the start of the Heisei Era in 1989, and Shinzo and Akie Abe do not currently live there on a permanent basis.

No explicit reason has ever been given for their absence, but having lived there when her husband was prime minister from July 1998 to April 2000, Obuchi can understand the attraction of staying at home.

“There aren’t any shops nearby,” she says. “It was difficult being cut off. You had to go all the way to Ginza if you wanted to go to a department store. At that time, there was only one small supermarket in Akasaka. Every night I would have to phone back to our house and see what needed to be brought to the official residence.”

Former first lady Miyuki Hatoyama
Former first lady Miyuki Hatoyama | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Miyuki Hatoyama, whose husband, Yukio, became the first prime minister from the modern Democratic Party of Japan when his party won the 2009 general election, says it was her husband, rather than herself, who felt cut off from the outside world. Her own life in the official residence, she says, “didn’t change at all.”

Miyuki was described during her husband’s time in office as “a wife to break the mold of Japanese first ladies,” and it is not difficult to see why. She started her professional life as a member of the all-female Takarazuka Revue musical troupe, has authored a range of cookbooks and once claimed to have been abducted by aliens and taken to Venus.

She was also often seen in public holding hands with her husband, and her media presence was more akin to an American first lady than the traditional image of a Japanese prime minister’s wife. Not everyone, however, approved of her public profile.

“I feel that the media didn’t portray things as they really were,” she says. “If I went somewhere and said something, I would be portrayed as a woman who wanted to steal the limelight, that I was doing it for my own interests. If I went to an advance screening of a movie, for example, they wouldn’t mention the movie. They would just think I wanted to be seen there. They would ask if it was right for a prime minister’s wife to be doing that.

“Both my husband and myself were different from the usual type,” she says. “I don’t think the media was able to get used to that.”

Hatoyama’s brief time as prime minister — he left office after less than nine troubled months — coincided with U.S. President Barack Obama’s first term in office. Hatoyama’s political relationship with Obama was a testy one but, behind the scenes, Miyuki claims that she and her husband “made a connection” with Obama and his wife, Michelle.

Personal relationships between world leaders and their partners have more room to develop during official visits and summits, where programs of events are arranged for partners to participate in. These usually include visits to local schools, hospitals, businesses or other places of interest, and the conversation between partners generally avoids politics and sticks to family matters.

The nature of such occasions makes it difficult to establish deep friendships, but Kumiko Hashimoto believes that lasting bonds can still be created by even the most trivial moments.

“We were at a summit in Denver, and we went on a steam train to a ski resort,” Hashimoto says, referring to the 1997 Group of Eight Summit. “I was sitting on the deck of the train with Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair, just the three of us. From far away, we heard a big shout of ‘Hillary!’ We turned, and saw two men who turned around and dropped their trousers at us.

“Everyone was shocked and asked each other if they had seen it,” she says. “It’s something I’ll never forget, and it appears Hillary feels the same way because she wrote about it in her autobiography. After my husband quit as prime minister, we visited the White House and Hillary asked if I remembered that time. So you can have an intimacy with them.”

Former first lady Chizuko Obuchi
Former first lady Chizuko Obuchi | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Hillary’s husband, Bill, left a lasting impression on Chizuko Obuchi when he traveled to Japan to attend her husband’s state funeral on June 8, 2000.

Keizo Obuchi had suffered a stroke two months earlier and slipped into a coma from which he would never regain consciousness.

Around 6,000 mourners, including dignitaries from more than 100 countries, attended the state funeral at Nippon Budokan hall. With the eyes of the world watching, Chizuko Obuchi found it difficult to grieve.

“I didn’t have time to cry,” she says. “There were always so many people coming to the house. There was no time to grieve. All the arrangements were made by other people and I just went along with what was decided.”

Keizo Obuchi is perhaps best known in Japan as the person who announced the name of the Heisei Era in January 1989. As the country enters the Reiwa Era 30 years later, the role played by Japanese prime minister’s wives continues to evolve.

Abe has been prime minister since December 2012, having also held the position from September 2006 to September 2007. During his second time in office, in particular, Akie Abe has established herself as a distinct public personality in her own right.

She has done this by speaking her mind, often championing liberal causes that contradict her husband’s position and pursuing her own interests, such as opening a Japanese pub and studying flamenco dancing.

Unlike her predecessors, she has her own personal secretaries.

Akie Abe
Akie Abe | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Akie Abe’s activities have also landed her in hot water. In 2017, she became embroiled in a scandal involving Moritomo Gakuen, a private school operator with a nationalist curriculum, when she was named honorary principal of a school that was to be built on land that had been bought from the state for a price well below market value.

The volume of headlines that Akie has generated — positive and negative — show how far the role of a prime minister’s wife has shifted toward a more Western, first lady-style interpretation.

But how much of that is down to Abe herself, and how much is simply a product of the times?

Writer, critic and former bureaucrat Mariko Bando, who now serves as president of Showa Women’s University, believes it is a question of balance.

“For a Japanese audience, the prime minister’s wife is expected to support her husband, especially with regards to relationships within the constituency,” says Bando.

“In recent years, the prime minister’s job has involved more overseas diplomacy. When he goes abroad, his wife has to take on a role more similar to American first ladies. The wife of Japan’s prime minister has to fulfill those two roles,” she says.

“Shinzo Abe has a very stable electoral base, so he doesn’t have to go around canvassing for each vote,” she says. “There isn’t such a need to work hard maintaining relationships in the constituency. He meets a lot of foreign leaders, so it’s more important to have a Western-style first lady.”

Japan has, of course, never had a female prime minister. Many countries around the world, including Germany, Brazil, Britain, New Zealand, Canada and Argentina, have been led by women at some point in their histories, but how would the Japanese public cope with a “first gentleman?”

“I think people would be very uncomfortable,” suggests Bando. “The prime minister’s wife’s role has always been to support her husband, and in the case of a first gentleman, people wouldn’t be able to get used to that. It would be like having a female emperor.

“There are female leaders in Europe, and they go about their business alone. I’ve never seen (British Prime Minister) Theresa May or (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel’s husbands in the media. I have no idea what kind of people they are. I think if Japan were to elect a female prime minister, that’s how it would be here.”

U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, welcome Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and his wife, Chizuko, to the White House for a state dinner in May 1999.
U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, welcome Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and his wife, Chizuko, to the White House for a state dinner in May 1999. | AP

So just what is the main role of a prime minister’s wife in Japan? Obuchi believes in her case it was to provide support for her husband, whose workload was so great that he sometimes didn’t even have time to take a bath.

Hatoyama, whose husband comes from a wealthy background and was often portrayed as being out of touch, thinks her job was to listen to the opinions of ordinary people and relay them to the prime minister.

Hashimoto, a mother of five, says she alternated between having children and helping to fight election campaigns.

Whether in the background or in full public view, however, each prime minister’s wife has had to fill all these roles and many more besides.

“All the things that I didn’t want to do but had to do, I did,” Hashimoto says. “Even though I really didn’t want to. I knew I had to, so I didn’t really hesitate. One of the things that I really wanted to do, but couldn’t, was play golf. I’m really bad at it but I like it.

“The prime minister is everything, whether you are their wife or their husband. That’s the first thing — their professional life. It would have been nice to have been able to play golf with my husband when we had a day off. But he never really had days off.”

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