Did Japan elect the wrong Abe? The country’s more liberal-minded voters could be forgiven for thinking so.
Japan’s first lady, Akie Abe, has emerged as an unlikely progressive voice even as her husband, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pushes increased military spending, a post-Fukushima nuclear restart, and unpopular tax rises.
She opposes a return to nuclear power, preferring instead to explore the potential of renewable sources of energy. While Mr. Abe’s political allies enraged South Korea by denying Japan had forced tens of thousands of young, mainly Korean, women to work as sex slaves before and during World War II, Mrs. Abe has spoken of her love of South Korean TV dramas and cuisine.
She even dipped her toes into the murky waters of the economy, questioning the need for last month’s rise in the sales tax – an unpopular move that her husband says is Japan’s last chance to tackle its enormous public debt and rising social security costs.
Last weekend, Mrs. Abe burnished her liberal credentials with an unexpected appearance at Tokyo’s Rainbow Pride parade in support of LGBT rights. Later, she wrote on her Facebook page that she had taken an interest in gay and transgender issues since joining a commission set up by UNAIDS and the Lancet medical journal last year.
"I want to help build a society where anyone can conduct happy, enriched lives without facing discrimination," she wrote. "I had the pleasure of having a fun time filled with smiles. Thank you.”
Her husband’s largely successful 16 months in charge of the world’s third-biggest economy contrast sharply with his first stint as leader, for just a year from late 2006, which was marred by scandals, gaffes, and poor health.
In a similar vein, Mrs. Abe appears determined to make the most of her second term as first lady, redefining the hitherto nebulous role in the process.
Over the past decade, Japan’s revolving-door leadership meant most prime ministerial spouses came and went practically unnoticed.
An "un-Japanese" first lady
Her public persona led some sections of the Japanese media to refer to Mrs. Abe as the country’s “domestic opposition.” Given the parlous state of the biggest opposition party, the moniker isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. We are still waiting, though, for a poll on the respective approval ratings of the two halves of the Abe marriage.
Given Mrs. Abe’s background, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she has embraced her role with such fervor. The daughter of a former president of the confectionery giant Morinaga, she worked for Dentsu, the world’s biggest advertising agency, before marrying Shinzo Abe in 1987.
After Mr. Abe resigned as prime minister under a cloud in 2007, Mrs. Abe decided it was time to “start my own life,” as she put it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last December. She took up running, cultivated her own rice paddies, and opened a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo that serves only organic food.
If she comes across as a very “un-Japanese” first lady, Mrs. Abe fits the media template created for the mainly female spouses of Western leaders, matching a penchant for designer clothes with campaigning and an easy public manner that served her well as a radio DJ in the late 1990s.
Far from casting Mr. Abe’s unshakable conservatism in a harsher light, some have speculated that she helps soften his image and acts as a useful conduit between the prime minister and his opponents at home and abroad.
“There are many people who are against my husband’s views,” she told the newspaper Asahi Shimbun last December. “The issue is how to establish a network with those people.”
He, too, hinted that the political divide in the Abe household is narrower than many think. “She is going her own way,” Mr. Abe said of his wife in a TV interview last May. “But when it comes to the crunch, we can work together.”