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The first missteps for Japan’s first lady

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Special To The Japan Times

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On Feb. 27, Democratic Party lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto submitted questions to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party about the activities of Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in regard to her relationship with Moritomo Gakuen, a controversial corporate body that wants to build an elementary school in Osaka.

Akie was to be the honorary principal of the Mizuho no Kuni elementary school until the school was caught in a scandal involving on the one hand Moritomo’s right-wing purview, and on the other suspicions that it had received special favors from the central government when purchasing land. Akie has since stepped down from her position at the school, but her husband said her involvement was as a “private individual” and thus it had no connection to the government.

Tsujimoto’s questions were an attempt to clarify Akie’s status: How big is her paid staff? Does she have use of an official vehicle? Who from the government accompanied her when she gave a speech at a Moritomo-run kindergarten? If these activities were those of a private individual, then why were public funds spent on them?

The main purpose of these questions is to put pressure on the LDP to come clean about its own relationship with Moritomo, but it’s worth looking at Akie’s relationship with the government, since the role of first lady is a relatively new one in Japan. Akie, in fact, has done more than any other Japanese prime minister’s wife to mainstream the English-language term “first lady” and shape the public’s conception of a shushō fujin (prime minister’s wife).

In most countries, the leader’s spouse has no distinct governmental or diplomatic role. The first lady is an American construct, one that didn’t exist in its present form until Jacqueline Kennedy hosted a TV tour of the White House in February 1962. According to a feature in the March 2 issue of Tokyo Shimbun, Akie’s model is Laura Bush, whom she met during Abe’s first tenure as premier (2006-07). She was impressed by Bush’s staff, which numbered about a dozen people, and the fact that she had her own office.

Getting the people to accept Akie as first lady was going to be tricky, since traditionally Japanese prime ministers’ wives were practically invisible. Kakuei Tanaka (in office July 1972 to December 1974) used his daughter, Makiko, for state events that called for a female presence. Happily divorced Junichiro Koizumi (April 2001-Sept. 2006), who lived with his sisters, never bothered with even a surrogate companion — and no one cared. First ladies actually became a thing during the Democratic Party of Japan’s brief hold on power from 2009 to 2012. Miyuki, the wife of Yukio Hatoyama (September 2009 to June 2010), was a former actress and such a colorful outgoing character — particularly enthusiastic about Korean dramas and out-of-body extra-terrestrial travel — that she attracted as much attention from the press as her husband did. The wife of Naoto Kan (June 2010 to September 2011), Nobuko, was also a media star.

Consequently, Akie took full advantage of her second chance in the spotlight to establish a role for the prime minister’s wife, though she did it in a way that was subtly subversive. Whenever she appeared in public with Abe, they held hands, a gesture that was surprising not just for a politician and his wife, but for any Japanese middle-aged married couple. By creating a protocol where nobody had imagined one could exist, this “sweet couple” image gave Akie license to set her own public persona parameters, since she obviously had the full support of her mate.

Akie’s mission is to win women over to her husband’s causes. She first did this by gaining sympathy with revelations about her inability to bear children, describing in interviews unsuccessful fertility treatments. And while her notoriously self-actualized function as the “household opposition party” who advocates against nuclear power and in favor of hemp and same-sex marriage might seem to confound her mission, it implies that the prime minister is tolerant and receptive.

However, the March 2 Tokyo Shimbun article asserts that Akie is more of an ideological soulmate than this image lets on. A scion of the Morinaga & Co. Ltd. confectionery dynasty, she attended the Sacred Heart Professional Training College — part of the same institution attended by Empress Michiko — and was later recruited by advertising giant Dentsu Inc., whose boss introduced her to Abe.

Shielded from the everyday concerns of most Japanese, Akie’s world view was, according to an article in the monthly magazine Bungeishunju, shaped by New Age spirituality that she developed while traveling the country visiting Shinto shrines. A strong believer in self-improvement through a positive attitude, she espoused a “loose, floating nationalism,” writes Karin Amamiya in Magazine9, and while on the surface this mindset appears to be at odds with her husband’s more dogmatic brand of nationalism, it really isn’t.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, Akie trusts her “intuition” more than she does any “knowledge-based” calculation, which may explain her problems with Moritomo. In the infamous video, she weeps after listening to a group of pre-schoolers recite the Imperial Rescript on Education, a relic of the prewar education system. According to a sociologist interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun, Akie “probably didn’t understand” the purport of the rescript, but in any case she was reacting to the spectacle of the children directly addressing her, as well as her husband, with encouragement.

Tamaki Horie, a professor at Osaka Prefecture University, doesn’t think such naivete lets Akie off the hook. “She acts like someone who wants to be everyone’s friend,” Horie says in the Tokyo Shimbun article, and Moritomo, whose scandals really have more to do with old-fashioned greed than with old-fashioned patriotism, simply took advantage of it.

Naoto Amaki, a political pundit, was even more blunt, telling Tokyo Shimbun, “Akie gave a speech at the kindergarten because Moritomo requested her to, and as first lady it was wrong because it could damage relations with South Korea and China. … She should be summoned to the Diet and made to explain herself.”