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Spotlight: Japan’s First Lady In Scandal

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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe wave as Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko depart for Vietnam from the Haneda International Airport in Tokyo, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe wave as Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko depart for Vietnam from the Haneda International Airport in Tokyo, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.

Shizuo Kambayashi

The wife of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister grabbed headlines by embracing socially liberal views like LGBT rights and opposition to nuclear power, softening Shinzo Abe’s image. However, Akie Abe has been embroiled in a political scandal that involves possible corruption and ties to an elite ultra-conservative and nationalist school.

The scandal pulls back the curtain on the far-right tendencies of Japan’s ruling class, including the Abes themselves. We discuss Akie Abe’s role, the scandal, the history of Japan’s first ladies, and the social ideology of the country’s elite with Linda Hasunuma, an assistant professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College.

On the traditional role of Japan’s First Lady

Hasunuma: The first lady traditionally stays in the background. She plays a supporting role to the prime minister and doesn't really express her own political opinions. But Akie Abe has a Facebook and Instagram account where she regularly challenges her husband's policies in public. She's been providing an alternative view to [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe’s more conservative, hawkish, and nationalistic public persona. She supports LGBT rights, she opposed the military base expansion in Okinawa, she speaks very favorably of South Korea and China, and opposes nuclear power in Japan, unlike her husband.

On Abe’s role in the kindergarten controversy

Hasunuma: This scandal came about because an envelope of cash ended up in the hands of the school principal, Yasunori Kagoike. He’s a member of a very conservative right-wing political group in Japan whose mission is to ‘correct’ the education system and provide the more ‘correct’ version of history. The videos and stories that have been coming out from the school show kindergarteners repeating the imperial education rescript -- these are things that are not supposed to be done after WWII. So the cash was intended as a donation to expand the kindergarten into a larger school. Some of that was used to buy two acres of land in Osaka for a little bit over a $1 million when it was really worth over $8 million. The charge against the first lady is that she has a personal connection with Kagoike, that she intervened in this land deal, and that she gave the money on behalf of her husband. The school represents this kind of dark side of the Prime Minister’s base of public support that wants to revisit WWII.

Japan’s Defense Minister, a woman, is also involved

Hasunuma: Defense Minister Tomomi Inada has a long history with Abe and is a very loyal supporter of him. Records show that she once served as legal counsel for the conservative foundation associated with the school. When challenged, she claims to have forgotten she served as an attorney for them. It’s very unusual. Abe also denies any connection to the school, and offers to resign if any of it is proven.

The Abes as feminists

Hasunuma: Shinzo Abe is not known for being a feminist. When he served as Prime Minister before in 2006-2007, he was known for his more conservative, right-leaning policy agenda, but since his comeback in 2012 he's been receiving a lot of attention for his “Womenomics” policy. Before the scandal, the First Lady seemed very much like the feminist of the pair, and that maybe she was even influencing her husband on gender policy. She represents gender relations in Japan right now. She had her own career, she's independent, she challenges are husband. But the “Womenomics” policy seems to be more about big picture economic growth than feminism. People aren’t having as many children, so there’s a shrinking labor force and over the years, studies have shown that barriers to women’s participation in the labor force are dragging down the economy, and that’s what being used as an excuse for reforms like paid maternity leave.

Women and the Japanese government

Hasunuma: It definitely helps Shinzo Abe to have women in the public eye because he's not popular with women voters. Japan's political parties haven't done much to nominate and run women for seats in parliament. So Abe has these very symbolic appointments to his cabinet to meet the 30 percent representation targets for women's representation in government. He personally appointed five women to the cabinet, but most of them are very conservative and loyal.

On Abe’s future in power

Hasunuma: The school scandal has hurt him in the polls, but because of the regional situation -- the power vacuum in South Korea, the instability in North Korea, and the fact that there really isn't a viable opposition, he will be able to weather this. There really isn't anyone else that can credibly challenge his leadership right now.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was produced by Vera Tan and edited by Julian Hayda. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.

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