March 21, 2017 3:10 am JST

Freewheeling Akie Abe sparks debate over first lady's role

Prime minister's wife under scrutiny over ties to nationalist school

YURI MOMOI, Nikkei deputy editor

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with his wife, Akie.

TOKYO -- Akie Abe, wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been thrust into the spotlight over her ties to a nationalist school operator in Osaka. Her seemingly cavalier actions that contributed to the now widening scandal have also touched off a debate over the role of a first lady.

Historically, these women fall into one of roughly three categories. First are those who live by traditional Japanese ideals of being a good wife and mother. They maintain strong ties with their husbands' backers at home and take care of their families, supporting their husbands from behind the scenes.

Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's wife, Kumiko, was a prime example. Many in their home constituency credited her for boosting her husband's career, while she herself shied away from discussing politics. "I am not a politician, but a wife and mother," she once told The Nikkei.

Others are just as politically inclined, if not more, as their husbands. Mutsuko Miki, wife of former Prime Minister Takeo Miki, was known for her liberal activism. She launched a group opposing changes to the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. She also poured her heart and soul into nurturing the next generation of politicians. Former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu was a favorite among her many proteges.

Nobuko Kan also loved politics, and often had heated debates with her husband, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan. She was known as a gifted orator as well. "Ms. Nobuko would make a better prime minister," an insider who once served as chief cabinet secretary.

The rest are known for their carefree manners. They pursue their own interests beyond what might be expected of a politician's wife, and their husbands give them free rein to do so. Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, was a pioneer of this trend. A former member of the all-woman Takarazuka Revue, Miyuki was known for her eye-catching antics. CNN once called her a "spacey" first lady.

Nicknamed Akki, Akie Abe falls into the third category. She has publicly declared herself an "at-home opposition" to her husband. She takes many positions that conflict with those of the Abe government, such as opposing nuclear power plants. She has held honorary roles in dozens of organizations and events, including one at Moritomo Gakuen that she has since resigned. She even opened a bar in Tokyo over objections from people around her.

Her cheerful manner, even shaking hands with anti-Abe activists with a smile, helped soften the prime minister's conservative image. But the social impact she has as first lady also means she can easily be taken advantage of by those with underlying political motives.

Many have described Akie Abe as a happy-go-lucky type. But in real life, everybody is expected to meet responsibilities that come with their positions and exercise self-restraint -- all the more so for a first lady. That the couple was even named in the Moritomo Gakuen scandal points to a lack of foresight by the government. It could also erode women's advancement in society, an issue the prime minister has been championing.

"I wanted to put my everything into sending out a national politician into the world, even if it meant sacrificing myself," Abe's mother, Yoko, said of her mission in a memoir. The daughter of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and wife of former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, she was known as the "godmother" of politics for supporting three generations of national leaders.

Shinzo Abe usually goes back to his own home after work, and eats breakfast with his wife and his mother, who lives in the same building. But he has been spending most weeknights at the official residence since last week.

"Ms. Yoko is furious about the Moritomo scandal," said an aide to Abe. "That's why the prime minister has been staying at the official residence." In addition to a debate over the first lady's role, the issue seems to have triggered a dispute within the Abe family.

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