Japan's new first lady, Miyuki Hatoyama, hit the headlines abroad with her bizarre musings about flying in a UFO, knowing Tom Cruise in a previous life and eating sunshine. But in Japan, she could be just the sunshine they've been hoping for. A former actress, author, and TV commentator, Miyuki, 66, is adept at charming audiences with her energy and quirky humor. And while her eccentricities and scandalous past have raised eyebrows, especially among Japan’s many traditionalists, this unique and extroverted first lady has also won a mesmerized following as she navigates the spotlight during the U.N. session in New York and the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.
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"I think she's amazing. It's fun and interesting to have her as first lady," said TV personality Takae Mikumo, during a conversation with The Daily Beast. Miyuki Hatoyama appeared as a regular guest on Mikumo's popular afternoon variety show. "She's a good commentator, always with something interesting to say and she's fluent in English." Unlike most wives of Japanese politicians, who are expected to hide in the shadows of their husbands, Miyuki is ready to play her new role with flair. Mikumo then added, "She'll do a good job supporting her husband, giving him courage and helping him show the world that Japan is open to change."
On Japan's Thursday evening news, Hatoyama was shown in New York, watching students practice at Juilliard, giving teddy bears to children at UNICEF House and singing "Sakura" with the seniors at a care center. Meanwhile, the clamp on negative press appears to be tightening. The prime minister's press office will not answer any questions about the first lady, and the page on his official Web site introducing Miyuki and her books has been closed. There is, however, a photograph of the happy couple with a casual Miyuki wearing what appears to be...pigtails!
"It's not easy for typical Japanese to have support for her," said a prominent Japanese reporter, who asked to remain anonymous. "But still, we think it's too early to judge her," he told The Daily Beast, adding, "She's kicking him onto center stage."
Miyuki herself first appeared on stage as a teenager in her hometown of Kobe, part of the fanatically popular all-female Takarazuka Revue. Competition is fierce for the revue, so her talent must have shone. She danced and sang in the romantic musicals until she retired in 1967 at 24. "When we were at Takarazuka, she was a very strict, scary, senior girl," said former star Ran Otori during a recent interview, adding that they became good friends after Miyuki retired. "She is a very frank person and not snobby at all."
• More Daily Beast G-20 coverageBut the media fallout from her comments about extraterrestrial travel threatened to overshadow the historic landslide victory of her husband, Yukio Hatoyama, 62, and his Democratic Party of Japan earlier this month. In her 2008 book titled Most Bizarre Things I've Encountered, Hatoyama wrote that in the 1970s, during her first marriage: "While my body was sleeping, I think my spirit flew on a triangular-shaped UFO to Venus...It was an extremely beautiful place and was very green." The new prime minister, whose legendary nickname, coincidentally, is “the alien,” appeared to take this in stride when he was quoted in a Japanese blog, as noted by TIME magazine, "I can understand to a degree [the existence of UFOs]."
The scion of one of Japan's most powerful political dynasties, which is often compared with the Kennedys, Yukio Hatoyama has a PhD in engineering from Stanford. In his 2000 book Learning from the Limits of Growth, he observed that "We are earthlings, and at the same time, we are aliens, one existing part of the universe...As a human being, I think it is very important to go beyond the bounds of global awareness into universal consciousness."
Little wonder, then, that the new first couple appears mutually smitten. "I feel relieved when I get home. She is like an energy-refueling base," said Yukio during an interview for a book. On a Fuji TV program aired this September, Miyuki said, "At home he washes the dishes, saying, 'I feel sorry for you if you have to wash the dishes as well as cook.' " Known for her lively TV cooking demonstrations, where she dances and juggles food, Miyuki has authored several popular cookbooks including "Hatoyama Miyuki's Spiritual Food" with Hawaiian macrobiotic recipes.
Miyuki calls herself a "life composer," and, in addition to spirituality, pursues interests in pickling vegetables, making stained-glass art, sewing and fashion. "She has a good fashion sense and often wears black and gold," said Mikumo. "Some Japanese may think her cute hairstyle isn't appropriate for a first lady," she added, "But it's an Asian, exotic sort of image that appeals to Westerners."
As her husband's fashion coordinator, Miyuki chooses "lucky" gold ties for his important events, that, she says, give "the image of a gold medal." She is also credited with styling his distinctive bouffant.
She's traveled with aliens and met Tom Cruise in another life, so “life composer” Miyuki Hatoyama should have no problem with protocols of the G-20.
An anomaly among Japan's political couples, the Hatoyamas have appeared on TV strolling hand-in-hand, "American-style," inspired perhaps by their early days in San Francisco. Miyuki settled there with her first husband Shinichiro Taura after retiring from the stage and worked in the restaurant owned by her brother-in-law. A mutual friend asked Taura to look after Hatoyama when he began his studies at Stanford. Taura never imagined that his wife would disappear with this wealthy young student, leaving only a farewell letter. That was 1971, and he has had no contact with either of then since. Miyuki and Taura were officially divorced in 1973 and Miyuki married Hatoyama in 1975.
But Shinichiro Taura got some revenge when his side of the story was recently splashed across the weekly magazines. "Hatoyama never paid for any of his meals at the restaurant or the lunchboxes we delivered him," said Taura. "I don't have any great expectations for him as a leader."
Yukio's mother, Yasuko Hatoyama made a formal apology visit to Taura when he married his second wife. It must have been an awkward moment for this powerful woman, heir to the Bridgestone Corporation fortune and now head of the Hatoyama family. Nicknamed the "Godmother" of Japanese politics, she has supported her family's political ambitions with famously generous financial contributions.
So how does Hatoyama manage a life surrounded by these two dynamic women? He escapes. When rumors surfaced about Hatoyama's mistress in Hokkaido, the northern island where his district is located, Miyuki fulfilled her role as the good Japanese wife by making an apology: "It was my fault, too." Spoken like a pro, this surely gained respect and even a bit of sympathy from a Japanese public used to demure answers from politician's wives. As out-of-this-world as she sometimes appears, Miyuki Hatoyama may actually be a down-to-earth, skilled entertainer who knows just what her audience needs.
Based in Japan for more than 20 years, Lucy Birmingham has written for Bloomberg News, Architectural Digest, The Boston Globe, Artinfo.com, Artforum.com, ARTnews, among other publications. As a photojournalist her work has appeared in The New York Times, Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, U.S. News and World Report, and A Day in the Life of Japan. She has published several books including Old Kyoto - A Guide to Shops, Inns and Restaurants.