Tokyo Notes

Japan’s 1st Lady: ‘Kan Won’t Quit’

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Tokyo Notes

Japan’s 1st Lady: ‘Kan Won’t Quit’

Nobuko Kan says her husband wants to change Japan for the better—and she’ll be supporting him with tough love.

Other half, first cousin, advisor—and even jokingly referred to as the chief cabinet secretary to Naoto Kan—no one knows the mind of the Japanese prime minister better than his wife, Nobuko.

Speaking Wednesday at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, a kimono-clad Nobuko talked of her husband's stubborn streak and determination to stay in office and bring much needed change to the country. She gave some revealing insights into her relationship with Naoto (in which she’s known to wear the trousers), and put forward some forthright opinions on Japan's political corruption, education and the difficult task of solving the nation’s demographic crisis.

'I'm not known for being encouraging to him,' the Okayama Prefecture native said. 'I basically scold, scold and scold him, and my support could stem from the fact I eventually pull back. My husband complains about going to the Diet because everyone is so mean and critical. But he says it's a lot easier being subjected to criticism in the Diet than receiving criticism from me. That's a way of getting him out of the house and to the Diet, and so that's a way of supporting him.'

On the media's assault on her husband in recent months, Nobuko said: 'He's been on the attacking side for many years. But now it's his turn, and it’s a question of how he takes it. We are both good at attacking people, but not so good at being attacked.'

Naoto’s been quoted as saying that he would stay in his job even if his approval rating fell to one percent (it actually rose for the first time in four months, according to an NHK poll released Tuesday) but Nobuko said that the pair of them are optimistic thinkers, and that they've joked about there being no such thing as a negative approval rating. 'I don't want him to quit because of criticism or bullying,’ she said.

Nobuko went on to speak of her husband's tenacity, saying: 'He felt quite blue after the upper house election. Many leaders would have stepped down after such results, but I think he made a personal decision to stay on and this resolve lightened his mood.'

She also said that her husband wears his heart on his sleeve and shows his feelings more than Democratic Party of Japan No. 2, Katsuya Okada (who’s known to be cool under pretty much any circumstances). 'He's more lightweight in that matter,' she joked.

When a correspondent asked her about a potential re-jigging of government personnel in the next few days, Nobuko said: 'I've no information on personnel decisions, such as a cabinet reshuffle. My husband is a great crisis manager and he knows I'm a blabbermouth, so he doesn't tell me anything. This is wise on his part.'

Nobuko highlighted the need for Japan to open up (a principle that Naoto put forward in an address earlier this month). She produced a clipping from a recent front page of the Nikkei business daily that said Japan has already experienced two miracles—the 1868 Meiji Restoration and its recovery after World War II (Nobuko was two months from being born when the war ended in August 1945). She agreed with the article that Japan needs a 'third miracle' of opening up (specifically through free trade deals) to pull it out of its current slump.

She also touched on the thorny issue of a consumption tax hike (which Naoto openly mulled prior the DPJ's poor performance in July's upper house poll). 'He believes very strongly in somehow creating a sustainable social security system. He often talks about this. Certainly a review of the consumption tax system is part of that, but it's not everything. The TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) is one dimension of a larger problem that he is very focussed on, which is trying to ensure agriculture in Japan evolves into a sustainable form.

‘We saw the demographic crisis coming 20 years ago, but nobody is doing anything about it. I think people know what the answers are, but it’s difficult to get people to cooperate. Maybe this is because of the divided Diet.’

When asked specifically about Naoto's nemesis, former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, Nobuko shrewdly responded: 'I know (the Ozawa issue) is complicated, and there are many opinions, but speaking as one voter, this money politics should end with our generation.'

Nobuko’s also concerned that the nation's education system has diminished young people's interest in politics. 'There’s a problem with education in Japan, and the way politics is taught,' she said. 'When my husband first ran for office, he was unaffiliated, but saw that many people felt politics was something for other people and he wanted to do something about this. This stems from education, especially the teaching of recent history. This directly affects people's lives and is not taught thoroughly at junior high school and high school.'

In typically good humour, Nobuko also quipped that if she could live her life over again, she wouldn't have married Naoto. 'If I were born again, I wouldn't want to repeat this life,' she said. 'I'd want to do something different.'