Lawmakers are discussing at the Diet whether the prime minister’s wife should be regarded as a public official or a private citizen.
The debate was triggered by the words and actions of Akie Abe, wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in connection with Moritomo Gakuen, an Osaka-based educational corporation.
Akie Abe delivered a speech at the kindergarten operated by Moritomo Gakuen in September 2015.
“My husband thinks the education policy of this institution is very good,” she said.
When asked by an opposition lawmaker to explain the first lady’s relationship with the head of Moritomo Gakuen, Abe said, “My wife is a private citizen.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has concurred. He said the prime minister’s wife is not an individual who requires an official order as a central government employee.
Indeed, the first lady is not a public servant. Nor is she an elected official.
But Akie Abe served as honorary principal of an elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen plans to open in April. The educational corporation’s website introduced her as the wife of the prime minister. When she delivered the speech, she was accompanied by a government official.
The official’s travel expenses were reportedly paid by Akie Abe. Still, it is unreasonable to describe her relationship with Moritomo Gakuen as acts of a private citizen. Her actions should, at the very least, be regarded as those she took in her public position.
According to the government, five officials of the foreign and economy ministries have been assigned to support Akie Abe’s activities, with two of them working full time in that role.
When she accompanies the prime minister on trips, she receives travel expenses under the law governing the expenses for business trips made by central government employees.
Akie Abe has declined to receive daily allowances for her activities as the first lady since her husband returned to power in December 2012. But she has been paid about 1.45 million yen ($12,700) for her activities since the beginning of Abe’s first tenure as prime minister.
Akie Abe has sent out a number of messages, using her position as the prime minister’s wife.
The “Akie Abe Channel,” an Internet program that she hosts, emphasizes that it is the first ever program to be broadcast from the prime minister’s office “in the history of Japan’s constitutional government.”
She once attended a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to voice opposition to the construction of seawalls in areas affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
There are many opportunities for the prime minister’s wife to act other than as first lady.
Even in such cases, it is inevitable that proper discretion and heavy responsibility are required for her words and actions.
In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in 2010, Akie Abe, speaking about the position of first lady, said, “I felt I could undermine national interests unless I acted based on a well-thought-out strategy as long as I was in the public spotlight.”
Suspicions have arisen about the nature of her relationship with Moritomo Gakuen and its director.
As an individual in a public position, Akie Abe is responsible for giving the public convincing explanations about the matter, without shielding herself as a “private citizen.”