Japan’s First Lady Isn’t Shy About Criticizing Policy; Japan’s popular, powerful prime minister, Shinzo Abe, faces little parliamentary opposition. One of his most widely quoted policy critics is his wife, who runs a tiny pub in Tokyo

Japan’s First Lady Isn’t Shy About Criticizing Policy

One of the most widely quoted policy critics of Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, is his wife.


Dec. 6, 2013 10:34 p.m. ET


TOKYO—After winning two landslide elections over the past year, Japan’s popular, powerful prime minister, Shinzo Abe, faces little parliamentary opposition. One of his most widely quoted policy critics runs a tiny pub named “UZU,” or “Tidal Swirl,” hidden among the back streets of a dowdy Tokyo commercial neighborhood.“I don’t want agriculture to be treated like industrial products,” the 51-year-old proprietor said one recent afternoon, explaining her antipathy to Mr. Abe’s signature free-trade pact aimed at subjecting farmers to global competition. In her establishment, with just two dozen seats and a narrow open kitchen, she serves customers her organic “Akie Rice” grown in her “Akie Paddy” located back in the prime minister’s own rural district.

When she’s not running her pub, Akie Abe carries out her official duties as Japan’s first lady, greeting dignitaries and presenting awards. But the tart-tongued wife of the prime minister hasn’t been afraid to offer her honest—often critical—opinions of her husband’s policies, like the time she declared herself in a speech to be “the opposition in the household” over his staunch advocacy of nuclear power less than three years after the Fukushima disaster.

“There’s no guarantee another accident won’t happen,” Mrs. Abe told The Wall Street Journal in her first interview with a foreign media organization since her husband took power nearly a year ago. An avid user of Facebook who posts accounts of her daily activities from her smartphone, she once uploaded a photo of the carcass of a cow left in the evacuation zone that she had taken herself.

So far, Mrs. Abe seems to have had little sway over Mr. Abe’s policy-making. But she has angered supporters and energized foes. Some Japanese media have called her Mr. Abe’s liability, others his secret weapon, helping stoke his high support rate.

The first lady’s anti-nuke comments prompted an opposition lawmaker to chide Mr. Abe, 59, for failing to form a consensus even in his inner circle. From the floor of the legislative chamber, the parliament member held up a panel displaying photos of Mrs. Abe and former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Mr. Abe’s mentor, who has also recently attacked nuclear power.

“I must admit those two are extremely important figures in my life,” Mr. Abe responded with a chuckle. “But we as the government must ensure a stable energy supply.”

As her husband was getting the cold shoulder from his South Korean counterpart amid bilateral animosities, Mrs. Abe posted a photo of herself mixing a giant pot of bibimbap, a popular Korean dish, standing next to Korean dignitaries to celebrate a Korean festival in Tokyo in September. She received hundreds of comments accusing her of offenses like “cozying up to the Koreans” and “damaging Japan’s national interests.” She also got over 2,000 “likes” on her post and praise from a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman.

Just as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was urging her husband to make greater efforts to get along with South Korea during his visit to Tokyo Tuesday, Mrs. Abe was at an art show, exhibiting paintings by children from the two countries. “It is very important our children get to know each other through paintings,” she said. “I believe the children will build the future for the Japan-Korea relationship.”

The prime minister’s office declined to comment for this article.

Mrs. Abe has also helped to endear her husband to voters. She has shared with the public his personal moments, such as looking sleepy with mussed hair in the morning, and eating a Popsicle in pajama bottoms on their sofa late at night. Fans rallied to defend her photo of Mr. Abe feeding a piece of meat with chopsticks to the childless couple’s dog, a miniature dachshund named Roy, after someone accused the prime minister of holding the utensils improperly, branding it an insult to Japanese culture.

“She has served as his shock absorber,” says Ikuo Gonoi, a political scientist who has analyzed Mrs. Abe’s influence. Mr. Gonoi says Mr. Abe faces pressure from conservatives to pursue a tougher foreign policy and criticism from liberals that he’s too hawkish. “Her remarks have kept his image from going to one extreme or the other.”

Mrs. Abe’s blunt public statements reflect, in part, the surprising freedom and informality political families have in Japan, where American-style handlers and image-makers remain relatively rare.

She isn’t Japan’s first first lady to make waves. Miyuki Hatoyama drew notice with a book published the year before her husband took office in 2009, describing her abduction by aliens. (“While my body was asleep, I think my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus,” she wrote). Nobuko Kan, the wife of another recent leader, published a book addressed to her husband titled “What Could Possibly Change If You Were Prime Minister?”

Days after Mr. Abe started his first, short-lived term as prime minister in 2006, Mrs. Abe surprised the public by holding her husband’s hand as they disembarked the plane on his first overseas trip. Such a display of affection had rarely been seen among Japan’s public figures. The media scrutinized the photogenic first lady’s fashionable outfits, and criticized her celebrity-like lifestyle. She abandoned her personal blog after a controversial post showing the Abes at a fancy holiday party at a well-known singer’s house.

After Mr. Abe returned to power in late 2012, Mrs. Abe picked up where she had left off. At an event to promote farming fashion, she hit the catwalk in a loose blue-and-white-striped smock with gold sneakers. She invited a Journal reporter to her practice session of naginata, a type of Japanese fencing. There, she sported a white cotton kimono paired with black baggy trousers, as she lunged at her opponent—the wife of another former prime minister—with a long wooden sword, giving a quick shout to express fighting spirit.

Mrs. Abe grew up in Tokyo, heir to a family owning a confectionery company, and met Mr. Abe, the scion of one of Japan’s most prominent political families, while she was working at an ad agency. They have been married since 1987.

Mrs. Abe says she was never career-oriented, but explored her own projects after her husband’s first stint as prime minister ended in 2007. “That was a period of setback and hardship for us as a couple. After a while, he decided to refocus on his political career. I felt like I needed to start my own life.” She went back to school and wrote a master’s thesis on education in Myanmar. She started farming.

Then came the pub in October of last year, weeks before Mr. Abe returned to power. She says Mr. Abe agreed on two conditions: She didn’t drink while working; and she must close it if she couldn’t make a profit within a year. Has she met the financial goal? “Yes. Just barely,” she said.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: