TOKYO -- When first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped off Air Force One with her husband and approached a line of waiting limousines here Tuesday, a Japanese reporter wrote disapprovingly that "she gestured as if to say in a wife-leading-the-husband-manner, 'That's your car and this is mine.' "
The comment was telling, both about Japanese attitudes toward Mrs. Clinton before her arrival and about the current state of this country's attitudes toward women. In Japan, Mrs. Clinton was seen in almost legendary proportions as the tough, pushy superwoman who became co-president of the United States.
But when a group of prominent Japanese women actually got a chance to talk to her over lunch yesterday, they said they were pleasantly surprised.
"The media makes her out to be scary but she is very fresh and unpretentious," one woman said.
"She is charming, very attractive and incredibly bright," said another guest, Mitsuko Shimomura, a senior reporter and author at the Asahi newspaper. "She was interested in political change in Japan and she was a good listener."
Ms. Shimomura expressed disappointment that more Japanese will not have a chance to see and hear from her. "I think it would be better for her to talk openly to everybody the way she talked to us," she said.
"Japanese men are a little frightened because they think she is taking over Clinton's job even though she wasn't elected," Ms. Shimomura added. "She isn't that way at all; she was very relaxed."
While men may have a negative view of Mrs. Clinton, she is a model to many Japanese women. She is frequently compared to Princess Masako, who last month gave up her career as a diplomat to marry Crown Prince Naruhito.
"We were excited about Masako because it was the first time for a professional woman to marry the crown prince," said Ms. Shimomura.
When a Japanese newspaper recently asked college women to name their model women, at the top of the list was Princess Masako, next were working mothers, third was a popular television anchorwoman and fourth was Mrs. Clinton.
"Her coming to Japan will have a great impact on young women who are trying to do things in Japan," said Hiroko Nakamura, a pianist who also attended the lunch. "She shows there are all kinds of possibilities for women."
Mrs. Clinton is popular in spite of frequent reports portraying her as the archetypal overachieving, bossy American woman.
Perhaps because of such attitudes, Mrs. Clinton's role has been deliberately played down during her Tokyo visit. But U.S. Embassy officials were told that her schedule should be the same as for the other spouses of leaders attending the Group of Seven summit.
If her schedule was intended to play down Mrs. Clinton's government responsibilities and play up her role as spouse, it has succeeded.
Said one television report quickly summarizing her day's activities yesterday: "We got a chance to see her real career as wife, mother and as working woman."