But in more than three decades of marriage, including nine years as Japan’s First Lady, she has proven to be anything but your average political wife.
On Friday, she made a long train ride to rush to her husband at Nara Hospital. The next day, she brought his body home to Tokyo by car. On Monday, she mourned with relatives and guests at a private wake at Jojo-ji Temple.
Despite all this, Aki Abe remained outwardly calm and quiet when she appeared in public.
She will hold a private funeral on Tuesday, with larger ceremonies to follow later.
After her husband stepped down as prime minister in December 2020, Aki Abe disappeared from public view. Now she’s back in the spotlight, and the nation will look up to her as she mourns the death of her former leader.
Abe’s “Internal Opposition Party”
“Aki Abe — as first lady — was definitely different from many of her predecessors,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress.
Her support for progressive ideas, free demeanor and cheerful self-confidence brought her to the attention of the Japanese public.
Among the Japanese media, Akie Abe has been nicknamed the “internal opposition party” of Shinzo Abe.
With a penchant for speaking her mind, she openly challenged 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 the US Marine Corps base, which was supported by Shinzo Abe.
“I want to collect and convey views that don’t reach my husband or his entourage,” she told Bloomberg in 2016. “I guess it’s a bit like an opposition party.”
Her progressive views sometimes clashed with more conservative values.
Aki Abe has been an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights when she took part in the Tokyo gay pride parade in 2014. She also supports the use of medical marijuana, having been photographed in a vast cannabis field in 2015.
Despite their often opposing views, the couple had a love relationship and Aki Abe didn’t shy away from letting the public know. The couple often held hands as they stepped off the plane during their official trips abroad, a public display of affection rarely seen in Japan’s political circles.
Shinzo Abe has often appeared on Aki Abe’s Instagram posts, smiling with her at events or during casual outings, petting their dog on the couch, reading the papers in the car, or posing with a bowl of udon curry.
On their 30th birthday, Aki Abe posted a wedding photo of them wearing a kimono. They celebrated their 32nd anniversary with a 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.
Her own person
The daughter of confectionery magnate Akie Abe grew up in a wealthy and privileged family in Tokyo.
She was educated at a private Catholic school and a women-only vocational school and is fluent in English.
After graduation, Akie Abe worked for the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu. At 22, she met Shinzo Abe, who was seven years older and worked as a political assistant. They dated for over two years before getting married in 1987.
The couple never had children. Aki Abe told the Japanese media that they had tried unsuccessfully to treat infertility in the early days of their marriage.
Aki Abe was not content with being limited to a domestic role. She worked as a radio DJ in the 1990s, and after her husband stepped down after his first tenure as prime minister in 2007, she came up with a plan to open an izakaya pub.
“When (Shinzo) Abe longed for a return to the lead in 2012, it was right at the time when she was busy preparing to open a restaurant. It was something she had wanted to do for a long time, and she thought with (Shinzo) Abe from the premiership in 2007, she finally had the opportunity,” said Harris, author of Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan.
“So she made him promise that she would still be able to open her own business and she went ahead with it and it was a really good restaurant.”
The izakaya, called “Uzu”, which means “whirlpool” in English, opened in 2012 in the Kanda district of Tokyo, a few months before Shinzo Abe began his second term as prime minister.
She even grew her own organic rice in the paddy fields located in her husband’s home prefecture and served it in her restaurant.
In 2015, she was photographed on rice paddies with then-U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy in traditional women’s work pants, barefoot in muddy waters.
In the intervening years before she returned as first lady, Aki Abe went back to college and earned her master’s degree in social studies from Rikkyo University.
“It was a period of setbacks and hardships for us as a couple,” she told The Wall Street Journal in 2013. “After a while, he decided to refocus on his political career. I felt that I needed to start my own life. “
“It shows that she really tried – throughout his political career – to still be herself and not just be a political wife who showed up and just expected her to do what Japan expects political wives to do.” Harris said.
“I don’t think she was ever content or eager to play the role.”