Abe Akie, Widow of Slain Ex-Japan PM Abe Shinzo, Gave First Lady Role a Voice

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 01: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) and his wife Akie Abe atte
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Former first lady of Japan Abe Akie arrived in Nara, southern Japan, on Friday shortly before authorities confirmed that her husband, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, had died of gunshot wounds sustained while he was delivering a campaign speech in the city.

Police arrested a man identified as 41-year-old Yamagami Tetsuya, who was seen in a video shooting Abe twice with what appeared to be a homemade weapon. Subsequent reports left many unanswered questions, including police statements that Yamagami admitted to the killing but claimed not to have any political disagreements with Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

Abe’s tenure in the prime ministership was marked by his aggressive plan to kickstart the languishing Japanese economy, dubbed “Abenomics;” his push for Japan to expand its defense capabilities and establish a bona fide military, and his close ties to the United States, particularly his friendly relationship with former President Donald Trump. Abe was the first world leader to meet with Trump in person following the November 2016 election.

Equally significant was Abe’s push, both economic and cultural, to elevate the status of women in the workplace and public life. Japan has long been a nation where women do not find it feasible to work outside the home and be mothers; cases of bosses urging women to abort their children are common, and at home, women are often pressured to care for the elderly, keeping them from starting their own families. Politicians — even within Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — have prominently expressed hesitation about giving women political agency, going so far as to debate whether female officials should be allowed to talk in meetings.

In this context, Abe Akie’s prominence as first lady was unprecedented – particularly given that her political views were often publicly at odds with her husband.

As Japan Today narrated in a 2014 profile, Akie became so vocal in disagreeing with her husband that it became a running joke in the country that she was Japan’s true “opposition party”:

Her husband, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, wants Japan’s idled nuclear power plants restarted. Akie does not. Abe’s government pushed through a consumption tax hike – over Akie’s vocal opposition. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party plans a giant sea wall to protect the Tohoku coast from tsunami like the one that devastated it in March 2011. Bad idea, declared Akie after meeting with local citizens critical of the structure.

Akie Abe has been extremely vocal on social issues. On one occasion in 2014, Mrs. Abe appeared atop a parade float at a gay pride parade in Tokyo, an event she described as promoting awareness for AIDS and HIV sufferers in the community.

During the Abes’ visit to the United States in 2016, Akie took a detour to honor the American fallen at Pearl Harbor – a pointed statement given the prime minister’s support for amending the post-World War II Japanese constitution to allow for a military.

“I understand that there are various debates and stances on Pearl Harbor, but I think that we have to pass on the memory to the next generation, transcending the feelings of hate and anger,” Abe Akie said during the visit.

The apparent political disagreement did not lead to any public bitterness or coldness between the couple, however. Akie Abe was not a stranger to the campaign trail on behalf of her husband’s LDP. Abe publicly defended his wife more recently during the early days of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic after photos surfaced of the first lady in front of cherry blossoms, which opposition politicians claimed was proof that Abe Akie had violated coronavirus lockdown protocol. The prime minister insisted the photo was taken indoors.

The couple also regularly appeared together on social media, seeming to enjoy each other’s company and making lighthearted videos more often following the end of Abe Shinzo’s prime ministership.

Abe Akie has not commented on her husband’s assassination at press time. She made a brief appearance in public upon her arrival in Nara.

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