National / Politics

Wife of Japan's prime minister finds herself in scandal spotlight

by Linda Sieg

Reuters

First lady Akie Abe, once known mainly for embracing progressive causes that put her at odds with her conservative spouse, is now in the hot seat as doubts revive about the murky land sale to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen to which she had ties.

The daughter of a confectionery magnate, Abe has tried to carve out a U.S.-style public role as first lady in a land where political wives typically stay in the shadows. But that approach comes with risks, acquaintances and experts say.

“Her ideas and those of other wives of prime ministers are different,” said Yu Toyonaga, the head of a nonprofit organization promoting organic rice who has done volunteer work with her. “Rather than being a woman who is ‘useful’ within a male-dominated society, she wants to interact … as an autonomous person.”

Opposition parties are demanding she testify in the Diet about her ties to Moritomo Gakuen, the nationalist school operator whose deeply discounted purchase of government-owned land is at the heart of the suspected cronyism scandal and possible cover-up that has sliced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s support ratings.

The Finance Ministry admitted March 12 that it had altered documents about the deal, including removing references to Akie Abe. Her husband has denied he or his wife intervened in the sale or that he ordered a cover-up.

The prime minister is opposed to her testifying, but 62 percent of respondents to a poll published Monday by the Nikkei financial newspaper said she should answer questions in the Diet. The survey showed that public support for Shinzo Abe has dropped to 42 percent while the ratio of respondents opposed to his Cabinet jumped to 49 percent.

Akie Abe, 55, has made waves since her husband returned to office in 2012 for a second term with activities that include taking part in an LGBT rights parade, opposing nuclear power and visiting protesters against a planned U.S. military facility in Okinawa — all positions that resonate with left-leaning voters.

She also runs a tiny organic food restaurant and has spoken in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical use.

Such progressive views won her the nickname “domestic opposition,” and helped soften Shinzo Abe’s own hawkish image.

Akie Abe has also, however, at times publicly aligned more closely with her husband’s conservative views.

She has visited Yasukuni Shrine, a shinto facility for the war dead that is viewed by China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism because it also honors World War II leaders convicted as war criminals by the Allied tribunal.

Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni once in December 2013 but has since stayed away to avoid angering Beijing and Seoul.

Until the scandal broke last year, Akie Abe was set to become honorary principal of an elementary school in Osaka that Moritomo Gakuen planned to open on the discounted land. She also visited a kindergarten run by Moritomo whose curriculum had echoes of prewar nationalist education centered on the emperor.

Those who know Akie Abe see nothing surprising in her holding seemingly paradoxical views.

“She doesn’t act based on theory or logic, but from the heart,” said Toyonaga.

Since the Moritomo scandal burst back onto the political scene this month, she has not commented directly on the matter.

Akie Abe has been criticized for seeming to be clueless about the situation in which she finds herself.

On the evening of March 9 — the day media reported police were investigating as a possible suicide the death of a Finance Ministry official at the local bureau that handled the land deal — Akie Abe attended a party hosted by a celebrity, according to a photo posted on the celebrity’s Instagram account, according to media reports. The photo no longer appears on that Instagram feed.

Also on March 9, she posted on Facebook photos of herself smiling at an International Women’s Day art fair the previous day. Some comments posted in response called her “thoughtless” and a “murderer,” while other expressed support.

Some critics have suggested she should lay low now.

“Many people are fascinated by Mrs. Akie’s freestyle life that doesn’t fit the mold of previous first ladies,” reporter Makiko Takita wrote in the conservative Sankei Shimbun.

“But now the administration is in a tight spot and her inappropriate words and actions are … pulling the rug out from under it,” Takita added. “This is overstepping the bounds toward the prime minister’s wife, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to restrain your activities?”