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Nobuko Kan, left, wife of Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen. (Jim Young/Reuters)
Nobuko Kan, left, wife of Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen. (Jim Young/Reuters)

G20 spouses

Japan's first lady more than an accessory Add to ...

When Nobuko Kan made her diplomatic debut at the G8 and G20 summits this weekend, she was geared up to debate the other leaders' spouses.

Unfortunately for her, conversation rarely strayed outside the safety zone of "nature, animals, hobbies, holidays, a little bit of talk about cooking and what they eat during the Christmas time."

"I was ... hoping they might be more interested in talking about politics," Ms. Kan, the wife of the new Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, says through an interpreter in an exclusive Canadian interview with The Globe and Mail. "But that wasn't the impression that I had this time."

Don't let her docile appearance and traditional dress fool you. She's much more than an accessory to her husband when he travels.

Her auburn-dyed hair parted to the left and pulled back loosely on Saturday, the petite Ms. Kan abandoned the pantsuits and sweater sets she wears in Japan. At an elaborate tea ceremony at the Japan Foundation in Toronto, Ms. Kan (a tea master herself), wore a sky-blue kimono with a flower-printed obi sash. She traded in designer pumps for white tabi socks and silver platform sandals.

She respects ancient cultural traditions, but she's also a shrewd thinker and talker. She may only be 2.5 weeks into the job as Japan's Prime Minister's wife (she has yet to move into the official residence) but the 63-year-old has decades of experience as a political spouse under her belt.

She met her husband when the two were student activists. Mr. Kan was elected to the House of Representatives in 1980 and was later appointed to cabinet, first as health minister and then finance minister.

In early June, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned and two days later, there was an election for a new leader of the Democratic Party.

"I found out from a phone call from my husband that he decided to run for the election," Ms. Kan says with a chuckle.

Japanese media credited her as an unofficial adviser to her husband in 1996 when, as Health Minister, Mr. Kan exposed his own government's involvement in the tainted blood scandal of the 1980s.

The way Ms. Kan discusses and challenges her husband on his party's policies has earned her comparisons to a famous former first lady.

I am the opposition party within my family, so we spend a lot of time discussing politics at home and that's probably the reason people equate me as 'Hillary of Japan,' but I'm very different from Ms. Clinton. Nobuko Kan

Ms. Kan, for all her fascination with domestic and global politics (they dominate 80 to 90 per cent of family discussions, she says), has never had a desire to run for office herself. But like Ms. Clinton, who as first lady took on health-care reform, Ms. Kan has her own agenda items: She wants to eliminate sales taxes on produce and medication.

She reveals what she sees as her true calling - motherhood, not politics - when she openly discusses the other issue dear to her heart: treatment for hikikomori.

The condition, which means "acute social withdrawal," has hit many teenagers and young men in Japan who lock themselves in their homes and listen to music, surf the Internet or play video games, refusing to go outside and interact with others.

"That's a very close subject to my own family," she says candidly as the easy grin on her face fades.

Shortly before her sons were to write the entrance exams for high school, they developed hikikomori and stopped attending classes.

"I asked the school people: please don't call us every day and ask, 'Why is your son not coming?'"

Her younger son did leave the house, but only to transplant himself to Mahjong parlours all weekend long.

Ms. Kan felt helpless and tried to wait out what she calls the greatest challenge of her family life. After long family discussions led by her husband, her sons finally recovered.

"Both of them eventually broke out of that situation and became responsible members of society, but there's no clear, easy solution," Ms. Kan says.

She's added to her husband's already lengthy list of policy items to tackle during his term in office, though she is concerned that in the past four years, Japan has seen as many prime ministers.

"I'm not thinking of myself as an adviser. I'm one of the voters and a very high-demanding voter," she says. "Hopefully they'll have an opportunity to carry out those changes that they were voted for."

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