Who is Akie Abe? The wife of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set new standards for Japanese first ladies

But in more than three decades of marriage – including nine years as Japan’s first lady – she proved anything but a conventional political wife.

In Japan, Akie Abe is best known for her outspoken and progressive views. Unlike her predecessors, she refused to remain in her husband’s shadow. Instead, the socialite has carved out a public persona in a style more akin to American First Ladies.

On Friday, she took an hour-long train ride to rush to see her husband at a Nara hospital. The next day, she took his body back to Tokyo by car. On Monday, she mourned alongside relatives and guests at a private wake at Zojo-ji Temple.

Akie Abe remained calm and calm on the outside when he appeared in public.

On Tuesday, she will host a private funeral, which will be followed by larger ceremonies later.

After her husband resigned as Prime Minister in December 2020, Akie Abe disappeared from public view. Now she has been thrust back into the spotlight – and the nation will look to her as it mourns the death of its former leader.

Abe’s “domestic opposition party”

“Akie Abe — as First Lady — was certainly different from many of her predecessors,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress.

Her support for progressive causes, outspoken manner, and cheerful confidence endeared her to the Japanese public.

Akie Abe earned a nickname in the Japanese media – as Shinzo Abe’s “native opposition party”.

With a penchant for speaking her mind, she openly questioned a number of her husband’s policies, from his push for nuclear power to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. In 2016, she met with protesters in Okinawa opposing the expansion of a United States Marine Corps base that supported Shinzo Abe.

Shinzo and Akie Abe arrive at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo after the 2019 enthronement ceremony for Emperor Naruhito.

“I want to pick up and share the views that aren’t getting through to my husband or those around him,” she told Bloomberg in 2016. “It’s a bit like an opposition party, I suppose.”

Her progressive views sometimes seemed at odds with more conservative values.

Akie Abe was a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights and took part in a 2014 gay pride march in Tokyo. She also supports the use of medical marijuana after posing for photos in a sprawling cannabis field in 2015.

Akie Abe attends the Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade on April 27, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan.
Akie Abe was also embroiled in occasional controversy, including a scandal over a murky land sale involving a nationalist school with which she had ties.

Despite their often opposing views, the couple had a loving relationship — and Akie Abe wasn’t shy about letting the public know. The couple often held hands when stepping off planes on their official trips abroad – a public display of love rarely seen in Japan’s political circles.

Shinzo Abe frequently appeared on Akie Abe’s Instagram posts, smiling beside her at events or walks, petting her dog on the sofa, reading the newspaper in the car – or posing with a bowl of curry udon.

On their 30th anniversary, Akie Abe posted a wedding photo of them in kimonos. They celebrated their 32nd anniversary with a cherry cream cake and wine.

She was the first wife of a Japanese minister to actively use social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram, sharing snippets of her life with tens of thousands of followers.

your own person

The daughter of a candy magnate, Akie Abe grew up in a wealthy and privileged family in Tokyo.

She was educated at a Catholic private school and a women-only vocational school and is fluent in English.

After graduating, Akie Abe worked at the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu. At 22, she met Shinzo Abe, seven years her senior, who worked as a political assistant. They dated for over two years before tying the knot in 1987.

The couple never had children. Akie Abe has told Japanese media that they had unsuccessfully sought fertility treatment in the early days of their marriage.

Akie Abe wasn’t content to be confined to a domestic role. She worked as a radio DJ in the 1990s, and after her husband stepped down from his first term as prime minister in 2007, she had plans to open an izakaya pub.

Akie Abe and Melania Trump meet schoolchildren during a visit to Kyobashi-Tsukiji Elementary School in Tokyo on November 6, 2017.

“When (Shinzo) Abe was pining for a comeback as an executive in 2012, it was right at the same time that she was busy opening a restaurant. It was something she’d wanted to do for some time and she thought with (Shinzo ) Abe from the Premiership for 2007 she finally had the opportunity,” said Harris, author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan. .

“So she made him promise that she could still open her business and she did and it was a really nice restaurant.”

Dubbed “UZU” – which means “whirlpool” in English – the izakaya opened in Tokyo’s Kanda district in 2012, months before Shinzo Abe began his second term as prime minister.

She even grew her own organic rice in a paddy field in her husband’s home prefecture and served it at her restaurant.

In 2015, she was photographed in a paddy field growing rice with then-US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, wearing traditional women’s work trousers and standing barefoot in murky water.

In the intervening years before returning as First Lady, Akie Abe returned to college and earned a master’s degree in Social Design Studies from Rikkyo University.

“It was a time of setback and hardship for us as a couple,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2013. “After a while, he decided to refocus on his political career. I felt like I had to start my own life. “

“It shows that she’s really tried — throughout his political career — to still be her own person, not just be a political wife who comes up and is expected to do the things that Japan is supposed to do by expected political wives,” Harris said.

“I don’t necessarily think she was ever satisfied or eager to play that role.”