Sat, Mar 24, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Japan’s first lady thrown into spotlight

‘TOO FREEWHEELING’:Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, who has described herself as the ‘opposition’ to her husband, is involved in a scandal that has dented his popularity

AFP, TOKYO

Japan’s first lady Akie Abe is a freewheeling, flamenco-dancing socialite, who once described herself as the “opposition” to husband Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and is now embroiled in a scandal that threatens his career.

The 55-year-old scion of a major confectionery firm has been thrust into the spotlight amid a favoritism and cover-up affair that has battered the prime minister’s popularity.

Japan’s emboldened opposition parties have called for Akie Abe to appear in parliament to explain her links with the nationalist school operator at the center of the scandal.

The operator, who at one point named her the honorary principal of his new school, snapped up state-owned land at a price well below market value, with the opposition claiming his ties to the Abe family helped grease the deal.

The scandal flared further when it emerged that finance ministry documents regarding the sale had been altered, and Akie Abe’s name had been removed from them.

The attention is probably not what Akie Abe expected when she vowed to raise the profile of the prime minister’s wife following a series of predecessors who shunned the limelight.

While Shinzo Abe fends off political pressure to resign, his wife has continued her active presence on social media, posting images and comments on her Instagram and Facebook accounts.

Her social media activity once landed her in hot water when she stunned followers by posting an image of a shirtless man with the word “Akie” and an arrow mark written on his chest. The post was quickly deleted.

Politically speaking, Shinzo Abe benefits from a relatively weak opposition. However, this is apparently not the case at home, with Akie Abe once describing herself as the “opposition camp in the family.”

She has frequently acted in opposition to her husband’s policies, openly supporting an anti-nuclear campaign as the government bids to get reactors back in operation following years of shutdown due to the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster.

She has visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors millions of Japan’s war dead, as well as several senior figures convicted of war crimes after World War II.

Her husband has been forced to stay away from the shrine after running into fierce criticism from war-time adversaries China and South Korea after visiting it in 2013.

In 2016, she also made a controversial visit to Pearl Harbor months before her husband made a historic visit with former US president Barack Obama.

When Shinzo Abe first took office in 2006, his wife, a fan of Korean culture, was seen as a political asset for her husband by softening his hawkish image.

However, some pundits have labeled her “Abenorisk” — a pun on “Abenomics,” her husband’s economic policy — as the scandal dents Shinzo Abe’s hopes of winning re-election as head of his ruling party in September.

“At first, her liberal image was expected to help balance Abe’s conservatism, but she was too freewheeling,” Nihon University professor of Japanese politics Tomoaki Iwai said.

“She has little awareness of the political significance of her position, while Prime Minister Abe appears to have lost control of her,” Iwai said. “In total her presence is negative to the administration.”

Born Akie Matsuzaki, her father was president of Morinaga and Co, one of Japan’s best known confectionery companies.

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