TOKYO Japan's first lady, Akie Abe, is grappling with the downside of a U.S.-style high-profile role, as a scandal over a murky land deal for a nationalist school to which she had ties provokes rare opposition questions about the spouse of a Japanese leader.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said neither he nor Akie, best known until recently for backing liberal causes and softening her husband's conservative image, intervened in the purchase of state-owned land at a rock-bottom price by an educational body.
The educational group, Moritomo Gakuen, based in the western region of Osaka, had planned to open an elementary school in April, with Akie as honorary principal.
Following weeks of questions in parliament about the affair, support for Abe fell five points to 50 percent, a weekend poll by the Mainichi newspaper showed, off highs hit after last month's summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
The persistent opposition questioning has angered Abe, who accused one lawmaker of treating his wife like a criminal.
In public, Akie herself appears bemused. "I am very perplexed as to why I am attracting so much attention," she said at an International Women's Day event last week.
But in Japan, where most political wives stay in the shadows, cultivating support in home constituencies, the affair has exposed the risks attached to a high-profile 'first lady' role.
"A leader's spouse can be a weapon, or poison," said a former government official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Akie is hardly the only one to face scrutiny over ties to the school, which she has now cut, nor is she being blamed entirely for the dent in Abe's still relatively robust ratings.
Defence Minister Tomomi Inada has said she sent the principal a thank-you letter for cooperating with the military's activities, and on Monday again faced a grilling in parliament.
Opposition parties are demanding the school principal, who quit on Friday, appear in parliament. The former principal is the head of the Osaka branch of Nippon Kaigi, a nationalist lobby group with close ties to Abe and his cabinet.
Akie grabbed media attention during her husband's first short term in 2006 and 2007, mostly for holding hands with him in public, an unusual show of affection in conservative Japan.
ECLECTIC OR PARADOXICAL?
Even to those who know her, Akie, 54, the privileged daughter of a confectionery magnate, is something of a paradox.
Since her husband regained office in 2012, Akie has grabbed headlines by embracing progressive views such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights and opposition to nuclear power, often putting her at odds with her conservative spouse.
But she has also visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, viewed by neighbours China and South Korea as a symbol of pre-war militarism.
"She goes at her own pace, and doesn't think much about her position as prime minister's wife," said a Japanese journalist who has interviewed Akie several times and asked not be identified, because she was not authorised to speak to media.
"I don't think she has either a 'liberal' or 'conservative' political ideology."
The role of Akie, known as the "household opposition", has helped to offset a hawkish image of her husband that deters women voters, political experts said.
"Somehow, the Abe cabinet had to compensate for the loss of women’s votes and Akie plays an important role," said Mari Miura, a Sophia University professor.
Akie has five civil servant aides, versus just one typically assigned to predecessors. This reflects her husband's extensive travel and numerous foreign visitors, one official said.
Those who know her say any upside has been more fortuitous than planned, since Akie mostly marches to her own tune.
"I think it is impossible for the prime minister's office to control her," said the journalist.
(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)