December 17, 2009

JAPAN: Miyuki Hatoyama, New First Lady, Seeks Role for Women

. NEW YORK, NY / Wall Street Journal / Asia News / December 16, 2009 She Campaigns Against 'Male-Centered' Society With High Profile; Traditionalists Decry Meals With Husband, UFO Comments By Yuka Hayashi in Tokyo Japan's new first lady, Miyuki Hatoyama, is stepping out of the shadow long inhabited by political wives here -- way out, at times -- in her campaign to recast the role of women in Japanese society. "This is, in some ways, still a male-centered society," she said in an interview Monday with The Wall Street Journal, her first with a non-Asian media organization since her husband took office in September. "We need to change that." Mrs. Hatoyama is the antithesis to the virtually nameless first ladies of Japan's first century of democracy. A 66-year-old former stage actress, she has received attention in Japan for her frequent public appearances, and for talking and writing about her supernatural experiences, such as going to Venus in a UFO. She once said that in a previous life she knew Tom Cruise, who was Japanese. She has cowritten a book titled "Mysterious Incidents I Encountered," a collection of interviews with celebrities about their supernatural experiences. Miyuki Hatoyama. Getty Images Hatoyama on Her Role as Japan's First Lady: WSJ's Yuka Hayashi speaks to Miyuki Hatoyama, Japan's first lady, on how she supports her husband and the role of women in Japanese society. Mrs. Hatoyama didn't touch on these issues in her interview but spoke matter-of-factly about her unusually high profile for a Japanese politician's wife. "Hatoyama has always encouraged me, saying, 'It's your life. You do what you want to do,' " she said, referring in a common Japanese form to her husband, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. "If people think I am different, that may be because they have noticed I go out and mingle with people and blend in without much effort." Her assertiveness turns off some traditionalists. Conservative magazines have hounded her, criticizing how the prime minister is being "pushed around" by his wife or making fun of her comments, particularly those related to her spiritual experiences. Such criticism so far doesn't seem to have affected her husband's career. A recent poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun daily showed the approval rating for Mr. Hatoyama's cabinet stood at 59%, even after slipping from 63% last month. The decline was attributed to Mr. Hatoyama's policies. Mrs. Hatoyama embodies the changes touching Japan after her husband's Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide victory in August, breaking more than 50 years of virtually continuous rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. Mrs. Hatoyama, unlike the wives of LDP leaders, has accompanied the prime minister on every foreign visit and appeared in a fashion show holding hands with him. While she says she doesn't discuss policies with her husband, her active role matches the image of women that the center-left party's policies envision. The DPJ has promised to eliminate a preferential tax treatment for stay-at-home wives, and to consider allowing married women to keep their maiden names. Mrs. Hatoyama says it is still hard for Japanese women to pursue careers while raising families. Many communities face the shortage of day-care centers, and the use of private babysitters isn't widespread, she says. Even as the breakdown of the traditional family structure makes it harder for women to rely on family members for help, "the perception still is it's a woman's job to take care of the elderly parents." Mrs. Hatoyama has a quick wit and speaks candidly about herself and her family, and regularly creates a buzz with her unique fashion sense. She recently won an annual award from the Japan Jeans Association, a trade group, for being the best dresser in jeans, and once showed off a skirt that she had made herself from a hemp coffee bean bag bought in Hawaii. Calling herself a "life composer," she has written several books on cooking and entertaining a la Martha Stewart. What fascinates many Japanese, particularly women, is Mrs. Hatoyama's relationship with her husband. In a society where people tend to keep work and family separate, and men and women socialize in their own circles, the Hatoyamas have made an impression by being together virtually all the time. A national daily calculated that Mrs. Hatoyama joined her husband at eight of his first 13 restaurant meals as prime minister, including four occasions with members of his cabinet. Mrs. Hatoyama said that the seemingly equal partnership she has with her husband may flow from the years they had spent in California as a young couple. He studied operational engineering at Stanford in the 1970s and received a Ph.D. She worked at the jewelry counter at Macy's after divorcing her first husband who was a chef at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. "Most men think it's embarrassing to hold hands [with his wife] in public, but it comes naturally to Hatoyama," she said, seated in the lounge of the prime minister's residence, wearing a knee-length skirt puffed up at the hem like a balloon. Meanwhile, Mr. Hatoyama, 62, is known to help out with housework, a habit considered unusual among Japanese men of his generation. Mrs. Hatoyama says even after becoming prime minister, her husband still does the dishes. She worries it will hurt her tall husband's back because the kitchen counter in the prime minister's residence -- a 1920s Art Deco building that retains original features -- is very low. [rc] Miho Inada contributed to this article. Yuka Hayashi E-Mail: Copyright ©2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc Click here to read earlier Seniors World Chronicle report about Mrs. Hatoyama