She’s lobbied for Japan’s organic food industry, LGBT, AIDS and women’s rights (previously criticizing Japanese culture for reinforcing the idea that women must be “cute”). However, she’s also currently mired in a scandal involving shady dealings with a nationalist private school in Osaka, garnering accusations of hypocrisy from the public.
Significantly, she’s done all of this with a direct ear to the man who can most influence policy: her husband, the prime minister. Clearly, she’s a powerful woman not to be underestimated. Here are five things you should know about her.
1. She’s opinionated
Mrs. Abe is known for being opinionated. She definitely doesn’t fit the demure, silently supportive first lady image that has preceded her. She speaks out on what she’s passionate about, no matter if she’s tackling it alone.
When asked in an interview if she always knew she would be such a pivotal player in this political relationship, she said she “thought she should be a traditional Japanese wife… she refrained from airing her views publicly.” After receiving her master’s degree from Rikkyo University in social design, however, that all changed.
“I always thought my husband’s opinions were right… I realize now, however, that what I thought was my opinion was not actually my own. I was just following my husband’s opinion.”
Now Mrs. Abe — lovingly referred to as “the household opposition party” — voices her opinions loud and clear. She’s opposed her husband on everything from nuclear power to the controversial Trans-Pacific Trade agreement. She’s also criticized the bureaucratic failings of the Japanese government.
2. She’s OK flying solo
Akie Abe isn’t afraid to go it alone. During her and her husband’s first trip to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, Mrs. Abe was noticeably single while touring a local D.C. school. (On previous trips to the US capital, Mrs Abe has been accompanied by Michelle Obama and even Laura Bush.) At a glance, it may seem like she’s just doing her duty as the first lady of Japan, but I think it’s this kind of fearlessness that makes Akie Abe a force to be reckoned with.
3. She’s a social media influencer
Mrs. Abe boasts over 15,000 followers on Instagram and more than 130,000 on Facebook. I’ve never been much of a fan of her husband, who comes off as a stern, war-mongering right-winger in my opinion; however, one look at her Instagram and I’m suddenly smiling at a video of them baby-talking to their pet dog, Roy. She humanized him for me. That’s her secret power: by staying true to herself and supporting the issues she finds important, she’s able to balance him out.
4. She’s more liberal than her husband (or appears to be)
Showing herself to be more liberal than her husband, Mrs. Abe has publicly endorsed rights for LGBT people and continues to support those with AIDS as a member of a UNAIDS commission. In 2014, she joined the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade, writing on Facebook; “I want to help build a society where anyone can conduct happy, enriched lives without facing discrimination.”
She says politicians sometimes “ignore the wishes of the people” and that the two parties live in two different worlds sometimes. Mrs. Abe hopes to build bridges between the bureaucrats and their constituents by speaking directly to the people who protest or raise concerns about her husband’s policies.
5. She’s in hot water right now
Despite all that she’s done to improve her husband’s image and all of her popularity with the Japanese public, Akie Abe has recently found herself in a tight spot. It all started when an Osaka kindergarten board chairman sent a handwritten calligraphy letter to parents that included racist comments against Chinese and Korean people. With that publicity came a fresh scandal: that same chairman applied to build an elementary school after buying public land for an extremely discounted price, and it seems he was able to get that discount by bribing politicians. One of the politicians just happens to be the prime minister.
So far, the evidence is piling up against the Abes. Akie Abe had accepted, and then quietly quit, a job as an honorary principal for the new elementary school. She had been in contact with the chairman’s wife, apparently giving a generous donation. In 2014 and 2015, she gave speeches at the school.
Her first scandal has led many to believe her to be a hypocrite: if she’s so progressive, why would she accept an honorary principal position with an infamously nationalistic school? Her recent actions are definitely raising a lot of questions and the public, as well as the opposing party, isn’t letting her slip away without answering them first.
Akie Abe has clearly made a name for herself. She has plenty of devoted followers on social media and regularly takes action, sometimes without her husband’s support. Whether these things actually affect her husband’s policies has yet to be seen; but nonetheless, a prominent female figure with political ties fighting for the progress of society is sure to make waves in Japan’s social fabric.