TOKYO — In Japan, there’s one Abe who’s friendly and approachable despite coming from a privileged background, who likes to drink and share a lot on social media and is generally the kind of person you’d want as a friend.
Then there’s the other Abe: Shinzo Abe, the conservative prime minister. His approval ratings remain decent but he’s not exactly the kind of guy an average Japanese person would want to have a beer with (not least because he doesn’t really drink).
His wife, Akie Abe, increasingly is becoming his secret weapon, showing a softer side of the hard-edged prime minister — something that could come in handy as Shinzo Abe approaches the second anniversary of his election and questions are raised about the effectiveness of his policies.
On Facebook, Abe’s profile picture shows her in a straw hat and mismatched outfit, farmer style, tending to her rice paddy. She posts pictures of the prime minister eating ice cream or looking at his old-school flip phone in the back of the car, or even smiling — something he isn’t doing in most other photos.
“Akie-san, you are really wonderful,” Rie Kobayashi, one of the more than 55,000 people who follow the first lady on Facebook, said about a photo of her with some earthquake reconstruction experts. “The way you live, how you do what you want and don’t bend your beliefs. . . . I really admire it.”
Defying stereotypes of the submissive Japanese wife, Abe publicly contradicts her husband’s policies. She’s anti-nuclear while he is adamant that it is needed for energy. She opposes his tsunami-protection levee plan and enjoys Korean culture while he battles with Seoul. The prime minister calls her the “domestic opposition party.”
Abe even joined in a gay pride parade earlier this year, in a country not known for discussion of LGBT issues, and has publicly discussed her infertility treatments and how the couple once considered adoption — a highly unusual practice here.
Once a radio DJ, she now runs an izakaya — a Japanese pub — in central Tokyo, serving pesticide-free “Akie rice” that she grows in her husband’s electoral district. Average Japanese joke about her fondness for sake, the Japanese rice liquor.
“I’m breaking the mold a little now, and if that helps many women muster the courage to take a step forward, I’ll be happy,” Abe said during an interview at the prime minister’s official residence. (They still live in their own house, using the residence only for meetings and receptions.)
As Shinzo Abe promotes “womenomics” — the relatively novel idea here that having more women working will help boost Japan’s economy — he is rolling out his wife to lead the charge.
Abe spoke at the government-organized “World Assembly for Women” in Tokyo earlier this month and will deliver an address on womenomics Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I will talk about how women should be more active in society,” she said. “Society can’t continue in this vertical, confrontational pyramid structure that’s made by men. I think what can change is women’s tolerance, flexibility and motherliness.”
Words like these show that Abe is no trailblazing feminist. She has been talking about how she doesn’t always have time to keep their apartment spickandspan, so her husband, “poor thing,” sometimes has to take out the trash or do his own laundry.
The prime minister is trying to increase women’s participation in the workforce as an antidote to Japan’s economic problems. Its shrinking and aging population means that it is running out of workers, but many women are unable or don’t want to join a culture where 12-plus-hour workdays are the norm.
Abe is something of an unusual standard-bearer for that message. She got married on the last day that she was 24 — in Japan, there has long been a saying that women, like Christmas cake, are no good after age 25 — and gave up her job in an advertising agency after her wedding.
“She’s no Hillary Clinton,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo.
But her increasing friendliness toward the media seems to be part of a ploy to add another dimension to Shinzo Abe, the scion of a prominent political family who often is viewed as somewhat soulless.
The prime minister returned to power at the end of 2012 after having to cut his first term short, in 2007, because of health problems. He is enjoying soaring approval ratings, which he interpreted as a strong mandate to bring about difficult changes such as reviving the economy (uncontroversial) and reinterpreting the constitution to give the “self-defense forces” more freedom to act (highly controversial).
His ratings have tumbled, although they are still around the 50 percent mark.
His wife, herself from a rich family, denies her actions are strategic and laughs at the suggestion that she makes the prime minister seem more human.
“He is quite an interesting and human person, and he has sides that are different from what’s shown in the media,” she said.
Analysts say she comes across as casual but conventional, and gives the prime minister a softer edge and more breadth.
“I think that without her, he would just come across as someone from a very privileged background and with very strong, right-wing views, just a stubborn conservative,” Nakano said.
Although she doesn’t think she has much, or any, influence over her husband’s policies, Abe said she considers it her role to voice opinions he might not hear from his advisers — although he says he hears plenty of dissenting opinions, she added.
Still, as her husband’s administration prepares to restart nuclear reactors shut down after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, she told The Washington Post that Japan would be “better off” without nuclear energy.
While the cabinet pushes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which includes the United States, she warned that opening up Japan could bring on an influx of unwanted products, such as genetically modified food.
Relations between Japan and South Korea, never great, have deteriorated sharply over historical disputes. But Abe, who has been criticized for enjoying Korean dramas and making Korean food, said her husband wants to talk with Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president.
“As a woman, I want to be on good terms with my neighboring countries,” she said. “I send my love to them always.”
They’re not the kind of words Japanese people would expect to hear coming out of the other Abe’s mouth.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.