TOKYO — First lady Michelle Obama, saying it’s an “injustice” that 62 million girls globally are not in school, joined forces with her Japanese counterpart, Akie Abe, on Thursday to announce that they would together promote education for girls in developing countries.
Meeting with young women from Japanese high schools and universities, Obama recounted her own journey from a working-class neighborhood in Chicago to Princeton. She encouraged the women to pay attention to education at home and to dream big, too.
“I’m sitting here with my good friend in Japan [and] with all of you, and we have the opportunity to change the world,” the first lady said, seated in a circle with the students and Abe — who wrote her master’s thesis on education in Burma — and U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy. “You can do that, too, and so can the 62 million girls out there who aren’t getting their education.”
Japanese women are among the best educated in the world but often struggle to work their way up the career ladder in a country that values long days at the office and long nights of drinking with colleagues. Increasing female participation in the workforce is a key part of the Japanese government’s plan to revive the nation’s economy.
Obama’s solo trip — her first visit to Japan — was part of her effort to promote the Let Girls Learn initiative that she and President Obama announced this month.
As they waited to talk to her on Thursday, the women selected to meet Obama sat nervously in a formal guesthouse decorated with elaborate flower arrangements. Obama soon put them at ease, bursting into laughter on realizing, after a lengthy introductory spiel, that she had forgotten to stop and wait for her remarks to be translated.
The first lady was joined on the road by Michelle Phan, an entrepreneur and popular YouTube makeup artist who has a huge following in Asia and was chronicling the trip on social media.
“Who agrees it’s time to help more girls around the world get the education they deserve?” Phan tweeted on the eve of the event, in a message that was retweeted and favorited hundreds of times.
To support the Let Girls Learn initiative, President Obama’s 2016 budget request included $250 million in new and reallocated funds, and Japan, one of Asia’s richest countries and the largest aid donor in the region, has pledged $340 million for girls’ empowerment and gender-sensitive education.
U.S. Peace Corps volunteers will work with local leaders and families in developing countries to help girls go to, and stay in, school. The Japanese equivalent of the Peace Corps — Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers — will do the same.
Michelle Obama said she was “incredibly excited” about the partnership between the United States and Japan “because I think our countries are in a very strong position to be able to reach out and help developing countries.”
Eleven nations will initially be targeted, including Cambodia, one of the poorest in Asia. Obama will travel there Friday night to meet Bun Rany, her Cambodian counterpart, and to hear from high school students about how they benefit from community-led programs.
Although many usually consider economics to be the biggest barrier to girls in developing countries getting an education, Obama said it was “also about attitudes and beliefs.”
“It’s about whether fathers — and mothers — think their daughters are as worthy of an education as their sons,” she said. “It’s about whether communities value girls simply for their bodies, for their household labor, their reproductive capacities, or whether they value girls for their minds as well. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that these kinds of challenges aren’t just limited to the developing world.”
While in Tokyo, Obama also had tea with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in their residence at the Imperial Palace and paid a visit to Shinzo Abe, the prime minister.
She will tour a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, on Friday before heading to Cambodia.