When Akie Matsuzaki married Shinzo Abe, then a rising political aide, in 1987, she followed a path well trodden by Japanese wives and gave up her job at the country’s biggest advertising agency.
But in more than three decades of marriage – including nine years as Japan’s first lady – she has proven to be 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 carved out a public role for herself in a style more akin to America’s first ladies.
Akie Abe, 60, was widowed on Friday after the former Japanese prime minister was shot and killed in broad daylight while delivering a speech in the city of Nara, in an assassination that shocked and angered the nation.
On Friday, she took an hour-long train journey to rush alongside her husband to a hospital in Nara. The next day, she drove her body back to Tokyo. On Monday, she wept alongside relatives and guests at a private vigil at Zojo-ji Temple.
Through it all, Akie Abe has remained outwardly calm and calm when appearing in public.
On Tuesday, she will hold a private funeral, which will be followed by larger ceremonies at a later date.
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.
“Akie Abe — as first lady — was certainly different from a lot of her predecessors,” said Tobias Harris, senior Asia fellow at the Center for American Progress.
His support for progressive causes, free manners, and cheerful confidence endeared him to Japanese audiences.
Among the Japanese media, Akie Abe has earned a nickname – like Shinzo Abe’s “National Opposition Party”.
With a penchant for speaking her mind, she openly challenged a range of her husband’s policies, from his push for nuclear power to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. In 2016, she met protesters in Okinawa who opposed the expansion of a United States Marine Corps base, which Shinzo Abe supported.
“I want to collect and pass on opinions that don’t reach my husband or those around him,” she told Bloomberg in 2016. “It’s kind of like an opposition party, I guess.”
His progressive views sometimes seemed at odds with more conservative values.
Akie Abe has been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights, joining a gay pride parade in Tokyo in 2014. She also supports the use of medical marijuana, having posed for photos in a sprawling cannabis field in 2015.
Akie Abe has also been embroiled in the occasional controversy, including a scandal over a murky land sale deal involving a Nationalist school she had ties to.
Despite their often opposing views, the pair had a romantic relationship — and Akie Abe didn’t shy away from letting the public know. The couple often held hands when disembarking from the plane on their official overseas trips – a public display of affection rarely seen in Japanese political circles.
Shinzo Abe frequently appeared in Akie Abe’s Instagram posts, smiling alongside her at events or on casual walks, petting their dog on the couch, reading newspapers in the car – or posing with a bowl of Udon curry .
On their 30th anniversary, Akie Abe posted a wedding photo of them wearing kimonos. For their 32nd anniversary, they celebrated with cherry cream cake and wine.
She was the first wife of a Japanese minister to actively use social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, sharing snippets of her life with tens of thousands of followers.
The daughter of a confectionery tycoon, Akie Abe grew up in a wealthy and privileged family in Tokyo.
She was educated at a private Catholic school and an all-women’s vocational school, and is fluent in English.
After graduating, Akie Abe worked for the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu. At 22, she met Shinzo Abe, who was seven years older and working as a political aide. They dated for more than two years before getting married in 1987.
The couple never had children. Akie Abe told Japanese media that they sought fertility treatment early in their marriage, to no avail.
Akie Abe was not 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 came up with a plan to open an izakaya pub.
“When (Shinzo) Abe was looking forward to returning to management in 2012, it was right around the time that she was busy preparing to open a restaurant. It was something she wanted to do. for a while and she thought that with (Shinzo) Abe out of the premiership for 2007, she finally had that opportunity,” said Harris, the author of “The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan.”
“So she made him promise that she would still be able to open her business and she went ahead and it was a really good restaurant.”
The izakaya, named “UZU” – which means whirlpool in English, opened in 2012 in Tokyo’s Kanda district, 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 prefecture, and served it in his restaurant.
In 2015, she was photographed in a rice paddy planting rice with then-US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, donning traditional women’s work pants, barefoot in murky water.
In the years leading up to her return 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 setbacks and difficulties for us as a couple,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2013. “After a while, he decided to refocus on his political career. felt like I needed to start my own life.
“It shows that she really tried – throughout her political career – to be her own person, not just a political wife who would show up and just have to do the things that Japan expects political wives to do,” said Harris.
“I don’t necessarily think she was ever happy or eager to play that role.”
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