Tokyo's new double-act comes to Europe with tough new message

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The Independent Online

Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, held talks in London yesterday with Tony Blair, on the first leg of a European tour aimed at strengthening defence ties with Nato, boosting Tokyo's chances of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and winning support for its tough stance against North Korea.

Travelling with his wife, Akie, Mr Abe said he wanted to show European leaders "Japan's will to actively contribute to the world" and explain "what kind of beautiful nation I aim to build". He will be the first Japanese leader to address Nato's North Atlantic Council.

The couple's departure coincided with the formal upgrading of Japan's defence agency to a ministry, the biggest change in national security since the Second World War. The conservative leader, who has made the phrase "beautiful Japan" his political slogan, has declared his intention to scrap Japan's pacifist constitution.

Mr Abe, who was elected late last year, has struggled to escape the giant shadow of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi who, with his bouncy perm, Elvis obsession and the whiff of a scandalous personal life, was always going to be a tough act to follow. But the new Prime Minister has a secret weapon: his wife.

As one Japan Times commentator put it recently: "Abe may not have the hair or the flair, but he's got the girl." Japan's first lady is the stylish 44-year-old Akie, a former DJ with a penchant for blogging, drinking, flamenco dancing and wearing jeans. In one of her first public appearances with her husband she set tongues wagging by holding his hand. All this makes her unusual if not unique among Japan's first ladies, who have until now walked two steps behind their husbands, when they've appeared in public at all.

After the barren bachelor years of Mr Koizumi, the smiling Mrs Abe has proved a hit with the media, and some newspapers and TV stations have even assigned separate reporters to cover her. Many have praised her poise and fashion sense, and her love of all things Korean, which has made her an unlikely political asset, helping to mend Japan's badly frayed ties with Seoul.

One magazine suggested that Mrs Abe - the daughter of a wealthy industrialist - probably accounted for up to 20 per cent of the Prime Minister's initial popularity. She even has that sure sign of public approval in Japan, a nickname: Akki-Chan. Mr Abe needs all the glamour he can get. While his predecessor possessed the charm and verbal swagger to carry off his sometimes unpalatable political opinions, Mr Abe often appears stiff and colourless as his Subbuteo hair. Magazine profiles have been unable to uncover anything odder than his love for ice cream and a miniature dachshund called Roy.

And with elections looming this summer, the Prime Minister has watched his approval ratings plummet below 50 per cent following a series of political blunders, indicating he is in for a rocky ride in the year of the boar. It seems safe to assume then that his wife will be asked to shoulder more of her husband's charisma-free campaign in the coming months.

Already she has vastly expanded the repertoire of a Japanese first lady. She is said to stand in happily for her teetotal husband in the drinking sessions that accompany local politics in Japan and has become a devoted blogger at www.abe-akie.jp, where she can be found chatting about Christmas dinner with the Prime Minister in the breezy style of a political wife in the US.

Will Mrs Abe's honeymoon with the public survive her husband's political troubles? There are worrying signs, including the Akie Lucky Cookie, a 700-yen (£3) box-set of biscuits embossed with the first lady logo. A reporter for the weekly magazine Shukan Post found unsold boxes of the biscuits piled high in shops, even in the parliament building where visitors pick them up as souvenirs. The reporter was told that the Prime Minister's secretary sometimes came by to check how the biscuits were doing, apparently aware that their declining popularity could be a harbinger of troubles ahead. "People are quick to get bored with these kinds of souvenirs," said a store manager.

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