Unconventional first ladies, yet poles apart

Mr Donald Trump dining with (from left) New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Mrs Melania Trump, Mr Shinzo Abe and Mrs Akie Abe at the Trumps' Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida. Mrs Abe has used news interviews to make policy recommendations for her h
Mr Donald Trump dining with (from left) New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Mrs Melania Trump, Mr Shinzo Abe and Mrs Akie Abe at the Trumps' Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida. Mrs Abe has used news interviews to make policy recommendations for her husband's administration, leading some to dub her the "household opposition".PHOTO: NYTIMES

Unlike Melania Trump, Akie Abe disagrees publicly with her spouse

WASHINGTON • When Japanese First Lady Akie Abe made her rounds in Washington on Friday, noticeably absent was the high-level chaperone of previous visits - America's first lady.

Rather than Mrs Melania Trump, it was the wife of the Japanese Ambassador to the United States who accompanied Mrs Abe on a visit to a local university, a Japanese embassy official said.

That was a departure from Mrs Abe's previous visits to Washington. In 2007, she was treated to a tour with Mrs Laura Bush of George Washington's home, Mount Vernon.

In 2015, she and Mrs Michelle Obama stopped by a northern Virginia elementary school with a Japanese immersion programme.

The break with convention, three weeks into her husband Donald Trump's presidency, is another sign that Mrs Trump may have different designs on the first lady's role from her predecessors.

NO HEAVYWEIGHT TOPICS

I would certainly expect no discussion of global politics. I don't see Melania as wanting to be part of those conversations.

PROFESSOR JEAN HARRIS, on how the different styles between the US and Japanese first ladies could keep conversations at the Trumps' weekend retreat on the light side.

Mrs Trump has elected to stay in New York for now while her son finishes his school year.

It is not yet clear if she will take a prominent role in White House social events, including accompanying fellow first ladies on their visits to the capital.

With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife spending the weekend at the Trumps' Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, the task of hosting Mrs Abe would fall to Mrs Trump while the two leaders hit the golf course.

As their husbands strive to appear in lockstep on US-Japan relations this weekend, Mrs Trump may find in her Japanese counterpart someone who is, in many ways, her opposite - a political spouse who does not shun the limelight and disagrees publicly with her powerful husband.

The US First Lady, a former model from Slovenia, rarely airs differences of opinion with her husband.

Mrs Abe, in contrast, has used news interviews to make policy recommendations for his administration, leading some to dub her the "household opposition".

She told Reuters in 2014 that Japan should consider cutting spending and boosting the economy before further raising the sales tax to 10 per cent. She said she had urged her husband not to go forward with the first stage of the rise to 8 per cent, to no avail.

Critiquing Japan's male-dominated professional culture, Mrs Abe told Bloomberg last year that Japanese women are held back by pressure from men to be "cute" rather than "capable and hardworking".

Her public profile makes her a rarity in Japan as well as a stark contrast with Mrs Trump, who largely avoided the campaign trail, has not shown deep interest in public policy and has rarely disagreed with her husband in public despite some damaging revelations.

When a videotape of Mr Trump emerged during last year's presidential campaign in which he boasted about grabbing women by their genitals, Mrs Trump said in a brief statement that his words were "unacceptable and offensive" but that she had accepted his apology.

The different styles could keep the weekend conversations on the light side.

"I would certainly expect no discussion of global politics," said University of Scranton professor Jean Harris, who has studied the role of first ladies. "I don't see Melania as wanting to be part of those conversations."

Mrs Abe's openness in stating points of disagreement with her husband has few parallels even in US politics, where first ladies tend not to diverge from their husbands in public, though they may be crucial advisers behind the scenes, Prof Harris said.

Just after the election, Mrs Trump said in a CBS interview that she chides her husband "all the time" for his Twitter attacks. "Sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn't," she said. "I give him my opinion. And he could do whatever he likes with it."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'Unconventional first ladies, yet poles apart'. Print Edition | Subscribe