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WASHINGTON – When President Obama travels abroad, sometimes it’s not enough for just the leader of the free world to show up. People in other countries want the first lady, too.

But Michelle Obama won’t join her husband when he heads to Asia next week, and her absence is likely to sting, especially in image-conscious Japan. It’s the first of four countries on Obama’s travel schedule and one of two that are welcoming him with official state visits.

“If Madame Obama could have come, it would have been better. But the most important thing is that President Obama accepted this is a state visit,” said Matake Kamiya, a professor of international relations at the National Defense University in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. “From an expert point of view, it’s sort of worrisome why Madame Obama isn’t coming.”

The fact that Michelle Obama recently spent a week in China with her mother, Marian Robinson, and daughters Malia and Sasha also is sure to be noted in Japan, a close U.S. ally and China rival. But the first lady’s communications director, Maria Cristina Gonzalez Noguera, said it was not expected that the first lady would join the president on a return trip to Asia so soon, having returned less than a month ago.

“When it comes to international travel, the first lady has always chosen her trips based on what’s best for her family,” Noguera said in an emailed statement.

The last U.S. first lady who did not join her husband on a state visit to Japan was Gerald R. Ford’s wife, Betty. Ford became the first sitting American president to visit Japan when he arrived in November 1974, a few months after he took over the office from Richard M. Nixon.

Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to Laura Bush, said having the president’s wife on his overseas trips is always welcomed – by both the White House and the host country – because she can carry out a different type of diplomacy.

“They can focus on different things and, between the two of them, really spread a lot of goodwill,” said McBride, who heads a first ladies project at American University.

When Michelle Obama does travel with the president, she often gets as much – and occasionally more – local media coverage.

Her China visit last month was partly seen as making up for her not accompanying the president to California last year for the visit by President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan. The meeting fell days before Sasha’s 12th birthday, and her office said at the time that she stayed back in Washington to be with family.

In public, Beijing muted its hurt feelings over Michelle Obama’s absence in California. But deep disappointment was registered in some Chinese mainstream and social media.

The Japanese are putting a good face on Obama’s upcoming solo stop, noting that his stay will be short. One high-level Japanese government official chalked up the first lady’s absence to a new “American style” of travel.

Her most recent overseas trip with her husband came last summer, when they visited three African countries with their daughters, shortly after their stops in Northern Ireland and Germany. Since then, the president has traveled without her to Sweden, Russia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Saudi Arabia.