Is the wife of a prime minister a public official who should be subject to legislative rules and bureaucratic regulations on her activities, or a private citizen who shouldn’t be held accountable over the political impact of her activities?

As the land deal scandal involving Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen, a nationalist private educational entity, drags on, debate continues in the Diet after speeches at the controversial school were given by Akie Abe, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, during visits in 2014 and 2015.

She came under fire not only for giving two speeches in which she praised the school’s educational philosophy, known for its nationalist ideology, but also for allowing her name to be used as honorary principal of a new elementary school that is now at the center of the scandal.

She resigned the position after the scandal broke, when it was revealed last month that Moritomo Gakuen paid ¥134 million for land the government had valued at ¥956 million.

Asked whether his wife is a public official, Shinzo Abe told the Diet earlier this month that she is not.

“I’m a public official, but my wife is a private citizen,” he said. “As the wife of the prime minister, she accompanies me on overseas trips where her role entails the nature of a public figure. But my wife has a separate personality. For example, on nuclear policies, where she’s anti-nuclear, she goes to rallies that wouldn’t be appropriate for me to attend. So she’s definitely not a public official.”

However, five bureaucrats are assigned to provide Akie Abe with support as Japan’s first lady. During her husband’s first stint as prime minster in 2006, she had only one such assistant.

“The activities of a prime minister’s wife have expanded (over the years). A variety of people have asked me to do a variety of things, and I’ve become extremely busy,” she said last week.

In response to Diet questions, the government said that when she spoke at Moritomo Gakuen, government officials accompanied her. But there were no legal problems, it claimed, because she paid for the officials’ travel fare.

In September 2015, Akie Abe spoke at a Moritomo-run kindergarten where she was introduced as the honorary principal. Her visit came a day after her husband traveled to Osaka. It was also a day after discussions between government officials and a Moritomo contractor over construction costs were held at the new elementary school. The Finance Ministry admitted in the Diet that it disposed of records of those talks.

The concept of an American-style Japanese first lady is a relatively recent one.

Traditionally, prime ministers’ wives have acted as behind-the-scenes supporters and have shunned the limelight. Thus, legally, their status was vague.

“The traditionally expected role of a prime minister’s wife has been nothing more than a hostess. In this regard, Akie can be called exceptional,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Tokyo.

In the U.S., the role of first lady is both one of tradition and one fixed in current legislative policy and law. Over the centuries, it evolved into a combination of written and unwritten rules, precedents and expectations on the part of the public that are sometimes vague and contradictory.

But in modern times, three laws heavily influence the first lady’s role in the U.S. and her limits.

These include the Post Revenue and Federal Salary Act of 1967, the Anti-Deficiency Act of 1884 and the White House Personnel Authorization Act of 1978.

The postal act prohibited nepotism in executive branch employment, appointments and promotions within the government. In practice, this meant a president’s wife couldn’t be appointed to or employed in an executive branch posting. The Anti-Deficiency Act, on the other hand, banned all voluntary governmental service, unless given to save a life in an emergency.

These two laws seemingly created a Catch-22 — relatives of the president could not be paid to serve in the government and volunteers were not allowed to perform government service. To get around this, the Justice Department eventually decided that the first lady is a “legal volunteer” within the executive branch.

Though working for free, she performs various duties on behalf of the president, traveling the world as a presidential representative, delivering speeches, hosting organizations at the White House and conducting substantive policy meetings.

The most recent ruling on the role of a U.S. first lady came in 1993, after then-President Bill Clinton’s wife, Hillary, was appointed to chair a presidential task force on health care reform. Medical lobby groups filed suit against the appointment, and the question arose over whether Hillary Clinton, as the first lady, was also a federal official.

The District Court for the District of Columbia concluded the first lady failed to conform to the legal definition of a federal official. On appeal, however, the D.C. Circuit Court reversed that judgment. The first lady was identified as a de facto federal official, in a narrow sense, and therefore subject to some federal regulations.

“In this case, for the first time, the first lady is formally identified as a political actor in her own right. No longer can the political activism of the president’s wife be dismissed as the expression of one woman’s opinion,” Connecticut College professor MaryAnne Borrelli wrote in a 2002 article.

Uchiyama said the Moritomo Gakuen scandal will lead to legal, or maybe less-binding, changes in Japan that could make the role of a prime minister’s wife more or less like that of the U.S. first lady.

“In my opinion, the problems lies in the ambiguous dichotomy between ‘public official’ and ‘private citizen.’ Akie acts somewhat like a public figure and has influence over Japanese society. But she is just a private citizen,” Uchiyama said.

“Currently, there is no law or government order that prescribes the role of the prime minister’s wife. But many, especially in the opposition parties, will demand public rules for the role.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.