TOKYO — Akie Abe has long been considered the Japanese prime minister’s secret weapon.
Warm and personable, socially liberal, all over social media — she’s everything her husband, Shinzo Abe, is not. She has helped add a human dimension to a prime minister not known for his charismatic personality.
There he is on her Instagram page, playing with their dog Roy. There they are, smiling and wishing her followers a Merry Christmas. She holds his hand in public — an extremely rare gesture in Japan.
Here’s what The Washington Post wrote in a 2014 profile of the prime minister’s wife:
Defying stereotypes of the submissive Japanese wife, Abe publicly contradicts her husband’s policies. She’s antinuclear while he is adamant that it is needed for energy. She opposes his tsunami-protection levee plan and enjoys Korean culture while he battles with Seoul. The prime minister calls her the “domestic opposition party.”
Abe even joined in a gay pride parade earlier this year, in a country not known for discussion of LGBT issues, and has publicly discussed her infertility treatments and how the couple once considered adoption — a highly unusual practice here.
Since then, she has visited a site in Okinawa where protesters were trying to stop construction of a U.S. military helipad — a helipad her husband’s government says needs building. She also visited Pearl Harbor last summer, some months before her husband’s historic visit in December with President Barack Obama.
But now, Akie Abe is finding herself on the wrong side of the Japanese press — and the Japanese public. She is at the center of a political scandal that involves both hate speech and a shady land deal, leading to questions about her role and influence. And the scandal is not going away.
“My wife is a private figure,” the prime minister said in the Diet, or parliament, this month, defending his wife. “I find it very unpleasant to have her dealt with like a common criminal.”
The controversy started with letters and video from a kindergarten in Osaka prefecture that described two groups — Chinese as well as Korean residents of Japan — as having “wicked ideas” and overtly supported the prime minister in his attempts to make them “repent.”
The same organization that ran the kindergarten was building an elementary school, which it wanted to call the “Shinzo Abe Memorial Elementary School.” Akie Abe was to be its honorary principal and had visited the site.
Akie Abe gave two speeches at the kindergarten, in December 2014 and September 2015. At the latter occasion, she told the audience: “My husband thinks the education policy of this institution is very good.”
Then it turned out that the educational organization bought the land at a vastly reduced price — about 14 percent of its official valuation. The license for the school has now been withdrawn and the authorities want the land back, but the controversy continues to fester.
The prime minister has strongly denied any wrongdoing by either him or his wife, who resigned as honorary principal as soon as the scandal erupted. He has repeatedly said she is a private citizen.
In her only public comments on the controversy, Akie Abe has said she was flummoxed by all the media attention she’s receiving.
“I am very bewildered, thinking about why I now find myself in this situation and why I am gathering so much attention,” she said last week at a discussion to mark International Women’s Day. “Since I became the first lady again, the range of my activities has widened. I have visited various places, and I have received requests from various people about various things,” she said, without addressing the school scandal directly.
The concept of “first lady” is a relatively new one in Japan, with prime minister’s wives generally staying out of the spotlight until about eight years ago. During her husband’s first spell as prime minister, in 2006 and 2007, Akie Abe kept a much lower profile than now.
She has talked, however, about being impressed by Laura Bush during her visit to Washington during her husband’s first term. Bush took her Japanese counterpart on a tour of the garden at Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, in 2007. Akie Abe also visited a Northern Virginia elementary school with a Japanese immersion program with Michelle Obama.
“It’s worth looking at Akie’s relationship with the government, since the role of first lady is a relatively new one in Japan,” Philip Brasor, a media commentator, wrote in the Japan Times. “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).”
Until now, Akie Abe had been a boon for her husband, said Kichiya Kobayashi, a political commentator. “It is a diplomatic advantage to have someone who can speak openly during visits abroad,” Kobayashi told the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun, describing her influence as “huge.”
Now, Akie Abe’s profile is high for a different reason. Lawmakers are asking for her to be summoned to the Diet over the affair.
“His wife is clearly a public figure,” Kazuya Shinya of the main opposition Democratic Party told reporters this month. “She has a responsibility to explain why she accepted the request to become honorary principal and why she ended up giving a lecture.”
With the role so new and no Japanese “East Wing” to speak of, some lawmakers have asked the prime minister’s office to clarify just what support services the first lady receives.
A spokesman for the prime minister says Akie Abe has two full-time and three part-time staff, seconded from government ministries, and that she uses a government car only for official business.
But even if she’s acting in a personal capacity, the prime minister's wife “must show proper discretion and heavy responsibility,” the Asahi wrote in an editorial this month.
“As an individual in a public position, Akie Abe is responsible for giving the public convincing explanations about the matter, without shielding herself as a ‘private citizen,’” it said.
An unnamed opposition lawmaker noted the lack of redress available. “Suga has taken care of damage control of past scandals within the Abe administration by basically firing troubled ministers,” the lawmaker told Tokyo Sports, referring to the prime minister’s top aide. “But he can’t urge Akie Abe to resign. He can’t suggest they get a divorce. This issue will have a lasting effect.”