Akie Abe, 51, is Japan’s first lady of conviction and action.
Jokingly describing herself as an “opposition force at home,” the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe doesn’t shy away from speaking out in public against her husband’s policies.
Earlier this month, for example, she became the first first lady to attend and speak at the Liberal Democratic Party policy research committee, hoping to get lawmakers to re-think their plan to build giant seawalls along 370 km of the Tohoku region’s coast.
She learned the ¥800 billion project has been stalled by opposition from local people who worry it will damage the fishing industry and the natural scenery.
But her husband said it was already a done deal.
“We are using some ¥800 billion in this project and we need to make sure only necessary seawalls are built,” she told her husband’s colleagues. “We need to create a better consensus among the residents on this. Otherwise, we will have much more public distrust in politics.”
The prime minister may not be facing any strong opposition in the Diet now that the ruling bloc controls both chambers, so his most formidable foe may be his wife, who seems more in tune than him with broader public sentiment over key issues such as the sales tax hike, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and nuclear power.
Akie’s differences with the prime minister are particularly sharp regarding nuclear energy. She has publicly questionedits viability, while Shinzo Abe is busy selling nuclear power plants overseas and eager to reactivate reactors at home less than three years after the Fukushima catastrophe started.
In an interview with The Japan Times last week, Akie said the scope of the Fukushima calamity was beyond people’s assumptions. “I think it is better not have nuclear power plants, as it would be catastrophic if we have similar accidents again. I would rather not have nuclear power plants fired up, even if their safety is fully confirmed.”
Abe is not the first vocal or unique first lady. Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of Yukio Hatoyama, made international headlines with her quirky comments, such as saying she said she met Tom Cruise in a previous life, when he was Japanese. And then there was Nobuko Kan, wife of Naoto Kan. She was criticized for being too involved in politics.
But Akie Abe’s somewhat political yet candid comments are not aimed at creating a standoff with her husband. She intends to capitalize on her status to present diverse opinions often unheard by politicians and major media, and set a new standard that Japanese wives, often perceived as submissive, can express their own ideas and take action.
“This country molds women like a cookie cutter,” she said. “I would like to get rid of the stereotype that the wife of a politician has to behave in a certain way, and I hope that what I do will encourage people.”
Born to the wealthy family that founded Morinaga & Co., the major confectionery company, Akie married Shinzo Abe, a product of the political aristocracy, when she was 25.
Akie struggled to find ways to capitalize on her experience as former first lady after her husband abruptly ended his first stint as prime minister in 2007, citing health problems. She formed a study and drinking circle with young people from her husband’s district in Yamaguchi Prefecture, started running marathons and went back to graduate school to research the education system in Myanmar.
The socialite even started farming around the time of the March 2011 triple disasters taught her the importance of self-sufficiency. Amid the intense debate over whether Japan should join the TPP trade talks, she harvested her first rice, which she branded “Akie mai” (Akie rice). Yamaguchi Prefecture has a large farm population and she wanted to encourage younger people to take up the trade.
More recently, she ventured into business in October, starting an “izakaya,” what she calls a Japanese-style bistro, to serve organic produce and sake from Yamaguchi while offering a place for people to gather and talk.
The enterprise, Uzu, is named after the Japanese goddess Amenouzume, who helped open the door of the cave in which the sun goddess Amaterasu had locked herself. Akie hopes her bistro will help enlighten society.
She had kept her plan to start the business secret from her husband until she was ready to buy the property at auction. He approved, on condition that she wouldn’t drink while serving her customers and that she would put the company in the black within a year. While he is not known as a regular drinker, Akie can hold her own with a bottle.
The first lady said she managed to keep her promise and turned a profit.
“But we have to do a better job because the consumption tax is going up in April,” she said. “As a business owner, I was first opposed to it, but now that it’s decided, it’s important to work out how we can keep ourselves afloat.”
While it is often pointed out that Shinzo won a rare opportunity to lead Japan a second time, Akie was also given a chance to take up where she left off from her first time as first lady. She admits she had no idea how a first lady should behave in 2006, especially because the preceding prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, was single and she did not have an immediate predecessor to learn from.
“Mrs. Abe was young. But now she is more mature, especially after she saw her husband hit bottom after his resignation,” said Kunihiko Miyake, who served as chief of staff to the first lady from 2006 to 2007.
This time around, Facebook and her official website have helped bring her closer to the people she wants to reach. She freely posts about most of her daily activities, including goofy photos of her husband sleeping on airplanes or licking ice candy.
“People have a better understanding of what I do via Facebook compared with before,” she said. “But I am also criticized because I post everything, but a first lady is no different from an ordinary citizen.”
Amid the tension with South Korea on historical issues, Akie often draws a backlash when she uploads pictures of her engaging in activities involving South Korea, partly because she is known as a fan of South Korean TV dramas.
Critical comments flooded her Facebook page after she posted a picture of herself cooking a Korean mixed-rice dish known as “bibimbap” when she attended a Japan-South Korea festival in September. She drew a reaction when she uploaded a photo of herself making kimchi at the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo earlier this month.
She responded to the Facebook comments with sincerity, saying she hopes to extend her friendship to many countries.
She even offered to meet with a person who harshly criticized her, but she said she hasn’t heard a peep since proposing the meeting.
“Criticisms leveled at me don’t make me sad, but I don’t understand why we can’t be friends with our neighboring country and why people criticize anything just because it has to do with South Korea,” she said.
Miyake, a former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat who currently serves as research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, observes that Akie’s candid nature may soften perceptions of her husband, who has been branded as hawkish by South Korea and China due to his revisionist views on history.
“(Shinzo) Abe is a conservative leader and he surrounds himself with conservative people. Akie plays the role of counterweight, whether she intends to or not,” Miyake said.
As Shinzo enters his second year in office and further stabilizes his power base, his wife is also keen to play a more proactive role in helping and empowering people whose voices are often ignored by major news outlets.
Yet she shies away when asked if she wants to become a Japanese Hillary Clinton.
“Many people ask me if I would pursue a political career,” she said. “My answer: absolutely no.”