With high approval ratings stoking speculation that Shinzo Abe could become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in recent history, he faces the risk of becoming complacent. Enter Akie Abe, his wife of 29 years.
The 54-year-old daughter of a confectionery magnate is known as “the household opposition” for speaking out against key Abe policies such as backing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, exporting nuclear technology and expanding a U.S. military base on Okinawa.
“I want to pick up and pass on the views that don’t get through to my husband or his circle,” Akie said in an interview last week at a restaurant she opened in central Tokyo four years ago. “That is a bit like an opposition party, I suppose.”
Akie eschews the image of a traditional Japanese prime minister’s wife who defers to her husband and provides support from behind the scenes. Perhaps more surprising: Her open criticism of Abe’s policies only seems to add to the appeal of the conservative 62-year-old leader.
“She’s very, very unusual — I can’t think of anybody in Japan, or for that matter any first lady in the U.S., who did that,” said Jun Okumura, a former trade ministry official and now a visiting scholar at Meiji Institute of Global Affairs. “What’s interesting is that has not hurt Abe in any way whatsoever. In fact, it has sort of softened his image. He can tolerate very different points of view, very different perspectives.”
In the interview at her tiny organic restaurant called Uzu, Akie said she tries to choose the right moment to convey the critical opinions she hears from members of the public.
“When he is being criticized by the opposition parties every day, if I go home and start nagging him again, he might ask me to stop it,” she said. “As his wife, there are times when I don’t want to attack him too much. Other times, I really feel I have to tell him something.”
As the first Japanese prime minister’s spouse to make extensive use of social media, she has attracted both praise and scorn over her views on her Facebook page, where she has over 100,000 followers. She never blocks other users, however abusive they are.
“Before talking about world peace, I’d like to achieve peace in my own timeline,” she wrote on Facebook in November.
“Some people who have great expectations of me and who have opposite opinions to my husband attack me for not telling him things more forcefully. They ask me how I can stay with him when our opinions are different, and even tell me to get divorced,” she said with a laugh during the interview. “They should mind their own business.”
Akie attended exclusive Catholic schools in Tokyo from kindergarten through high school, and went on to a women’s training college. She then took a job at Dentsu Inc., Japan’s biggest advertising company, where her boss arranged an introduction to Abe. In a magazine interview earlier this year, she spoke of the criticism she faced for being unable to bear children.
Akie’s actions often speak louder than her words. In August, she took an unannounced trip to Okinawa, without a police escort or secretaries, to visit protesters who oppose the construction of helipads for the U.S. military in the north of the island. She said she didn’t consult her husband about the trip for fear he might oppose it.
Another media storm followed after Akie was seen later that month offering prayers at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the site of the devastating Japanese attack that drew the U.S. into World War II. This prompted speculation that her husband would become the first Japanese prime minister to do likewise, but no such visit materialized.
While the couple seems oddly matched, they appear to share an admiration for aspects of Japan prior to the 1945-1952 U.S. occupation. Abe has frequently criticized Japan’s “postwar regime” and is known for his eagerness to rewrite the U.S.-drafted Constitution to expand the role of the military. Akie’s interest in her cultural roots is more focused on language and nature.
She produces her own organic rice, which is served in her restaurant that only uses ingredients sourced in Japan. She also insists on keeping native Japanese bees in hives she put in at the prime minister’s official residence, even though their European cousins produce more honey.
“In bringing in European and American culture after the war, I think Japan spoiled some of what it originally had,” Akie said.
She equates efforts to control nature with the West, citing the massive sea walls being built in northeastern Japan to protect local communities from any future tsunami on the scale of the 2011 disaster.
She also regrets the loss of Japan’s hemp industry, which flourished before the U.S. occupation. Japan now has 33 licensed farmers, compared with more than 37,000 in 1954, and Akie said that even the hemp fibers long used in the rituals of Japan’s native religion of Shinto now mostly come from China.
Akie had championed the cultivation of nonpsychoactive hemp as well as the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The past few months have seen a series of blows against a nascent campaign to legalize medical marijuana, after a lawmaker who spoke in favor of it lost his seat in the Upper House.
“I’ve never smoked it and I don’t approve of that,” she said, adding that she nevertheless didn’t believe it was right to ban all industrial and medical uses of the plant.
Since Abe’s first 12-month stint as prime minister in 2006, Akie has gotten used to life in the spotlight. She is now more comfortable with her husband staying on for a third straight term as party leader and prime minister, particularly to give the world a strong leader at a time when U.S. policy is uncertain after Donald Trump’s election win.
“The fact that my husband became prime minister again was not due to his efforts, but it was fate,” Akie said. “Japan has a big role to play now.”
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