The Indomitable Mrs. Kan

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Anyone who follows Japanese politics knows that Prime Minister Naoto Kan hasn’t been having an easy time of it. Despite the fact the his party, the Democratic Party of Japan, was swept into power on a tide of great popularity only a year and a half ago, its approval ratings were quite low and now seem to be on par or even lower than the much-derided Liberal Democratic Party. He’s had trouble moving both his domestic and foreign policy agendas forward. In addition to having to deal with a divided parliament, he’s been constantly plagued by internal party politics, mostly having to do with divisions caused by political kingpin Ichiro Ozawa. News in the fall was dominated by problems in Sino-Japanese relations, mostly due to a ship collision. Japan hosted APEC in November, but Kan’s attempt to announce Japanese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership fell flat (predictably, considering long-standing opposition to free trade agreements by Japanese agriculture). Luckily, he hasn’t had to deal with the issue of relocating the US base in Futenma (the issue which played a key role in bringing about the downfall of his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama), but that’s only because the US postponed things to give his government time to settle in. But yes, the list of problems goes on and on.

Anyway, throughout these trials and tribulations, Kan has faced another critic closer to home: his own wife. Nobuko Kan’s strong criticisms of her husband have received a lot of attention in the foreign press, particularly after she published a book last year called 「あなたが総理になって、いったい日本の何が変わるの」, which translates to something like “Now That You’re Prime Minister, What On Earth Will Change in Japan?” Mrs. Kan’s more controversial statements about her husband include:

  • Expressions of apparent doubt about her husband’s suitability for the position of PM: “I cannot help feeling a sense of wrongness,” she said. “Since I’ve known him so well, I ask myself whether this person is right for prime minister.” She’s also said something to the effect that Kan is more of a #2 or #3 man than a top leader.
  • Criticisms of his delivery of his first policy speech in parliament, as well as his fashion sense and inability to cook.
  • Suggestions that Kan’s tenure as leader might be short-lived: When the first couple moved into the prime minister’s residence, Nobuko only brought summer clothes.
  • A declaration that she wouldn’t marry the PM if she had another life to live.

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Asked by reporters about her book, Mr Kan said he was too scared to read it. The prime minister has called his wife his “opposition in the home.” According to Nobuko, Mr. Kan has said, “I don’t like parliament that much. But it is better than arguing with you”—and then he goes off to the Diet.

So, what to make of all this? Many of the reports seem to interpret Mrs. Kan’s statements as mean-spirited or strategically odd—or they seem to imply that Mr. Kan is a bit of a weakling who can’t rein in his woman. But first of all, it’s fairly obvious that many of these quotes are being taken somewhat out of context. For example, if we look more closely about her statement about not wanting to marry her husband again, Mrs. Kan actually said that the reason had less to do with her husband of 40 years than her desire to do something different if she were reincarnated and had the chance. Although Mrs. Kan describes her husband as more of a #2 or #3 man, she also claims that Japan needs someone like that at the helm—someone who is closer to the “real” Japanese people and knows how things really get done at the working level. And though Mr. Kan might not be able to dress himself, with his wife’s help, he took home the annual Best Dresser Award in 1996. (The last PM’s wife let him go outside dressed like this.) Some reviews of Mrs. Kan’s book argue that her criticisms appear to be made in the playful manner in which some middle-aged Japanese couples will chide or even put down each another in public in accordance with a societal norm of humility about one’s own family. She has often been quite supportive of her husband in public—among other things, he’s not a quitter: “Unlike some of Japan’s recent leaders, [her] husband won’t call it quits just because of low ratings and other headaches.” Admittedly, I haven’t read her book (which reflects both the slowness of my Japanese reading skills and my feelings about the probable length of Kan’s tenure in office).

Some have suggested that Mrs. Kan is playing at strategic familial deprecation, in accordance with the aforementioned norm of humility. Interestingly, the Kans’ relationship is starkly different than that of the previous ruling family. Mr. and Mrs. Hatoyama used to compliment each other lavishly in public, and Mrs. Hatoyama (a former Takarazuka actress) was famously a bit wacky; she claimed to have been to the planet Venus and met Tom Cruise in a previous life (when he was Japanese, of course). (Click here to read more wacky stuff about the Hatoyamas.) So, it’s possible that Mrs. Kan’s statements are part of a strategy of appearing humble and also differentiating her family from that of the previous (and unsuccessful) Hatoyama administration.

It’s also possible that we’re just getting a taste of what it’s like to have a first lady of Japan with a strong personality. Nobuko Kan doesn’t fit the stereotype of the demure Japanese wife. She and her husband met when the two of them were student activists; the two of them had to overcome opposition to their marriage, since they are actually first cousins. Mrs. Kan is a formidable campaign speaker in her own right; within the DPJ, she is affectionately known as “‘the Japanese Hillary,” and after Kan’s election last year, the Asahi Shimbun described her as “an asset that the prime minister can’t afford to ignore.” Mrs. Kan was widely credited with being an “unofficial advisor” to her husband when he confronted health minister officials over their cover up of HIV-tainted blood products during the 1990s, an incident that established Mr. Kan’s political reputation. During the G8 and G20 summits last year, she was geared up to debate serious issues with the spouses of the other world leaders and described her disappointment that they weren’t more interested in talking about “nature, animals, hobbies, holidays, a little bit of talk about cooking and what they eat during the Christmas time” (read more here). So, maybe Mrs. Kan is just something we’re not used to seeing.

Anyway, I would love to see some opinion polls showing what Japanese people think of Mrs. Kan. Some casual Googling in Japanese suggests that a number of people think she butts in way too much, while others think that she’s just very individualistic. But I haven’t had a chance to locate any actual polls. (If you have information on this, please let me know!) In any case, on a not terribly intellectual level, I feel a little bad for Mr. Kan. Yes, he should be doing better/more. But talk about fighting battles on all fronts—I wonder where the guy goes to relax?

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