Interview: It's A Source Of Stress

Since her husband became prime minister last September, Akie Abe--who at 44 is Japan's youngest First Lady ever--has quietly revolutionized her unofficial office with her charm, fashion flair, frankness and steady advocacy of several causes. In an interview in the prime minister's Tokyo office in January, she spoke to NEWSWEEK's Christian Caryl and Akiko Kashiwagi about how she sees her job.

ABE: Before my husband became prime minister I always thought I wanted to work as a volunteer. [Now] I've been exploring how I could help and visiting [developing] countries. When I see poverty, I realize how important early education is. I hope to do something to help those children who are suffering from poverty get a good education. Just like my husband, who talks about Japan as "the beautiful country," I [also] hope to introduce our wonderful culture and spirit to the world. It is a little embarrassing that there are people outside Japan who know about Japan more than I do, but I want to take the opportunity to show Japanese culture to the utmost.

I don't think I have a strong sense of mission. What I am doing is simply visiting places in order to cheer children up and encourage them. I think I am in a position to create more exposure for the achievements of those volunteer workers who are working hard overseas and the children who are studying [in poor neighborhoods]. There are many problems in Japan [as well as in other countries]. If I can draw attention to them, then I think it's my duty to try. Sometimes I feel a little constrained, but if somebody can get the attention they deserve through my help, that would [be] a great pleasure for me. I hope to visit as many places as possible on my own, including juvenile reform schools, hospitals and other facilities. Because my husband cannot visit so many places, I would be happy if I could do that instead.

No. But I always tell him what I've seen. Until recently, I always traveled overseas by myself. In that sense, I'm grateful. And I'm grateful that he's given me the liberty to do what I wanted to do.

Not at all. I know there are some harsh opinions against my husband. So I make it a policy not to say critical things. Instead I've been saying "what you're doing is right."

I think it will be hard. If I try to do something [new], I would get criticized. I will try to take into account other viewpoints and not cause problems for my husband.

Yes, I had lunch with her in Vietnam shortly after [I became First Lady]. I asked her, "Where did you start," and "How should I get up to speed?" She said, "Just keep doing what you're already doing." She is really heartwarming and answered my questions sincerely. Rather than saying, "This is what I have been doing," she talked so modestly that I somehow felt there was something in common.

I thought it would be better to speak in my own words before somebody misunderstood [us]. In the United States, I think adopting a child is not uncommon, but in Japan it is. There are so many married couples around me who don't have children. It is very unfortunate that many could afford to adopt but don't. It will be difficult, but I think we can figure out some solutions to [Japan's] low birthrate, including adoption and fertility treatment.

When we went to [South] Korea, I noticed in our car to the airport that my husband's suit jacket and pants didn't match. Oh, no! I think most people did not notice, but I did hold my breath.

I am not a fashion person. I used to wear only dark suits, the standard type, and when I see my friends, I wear jeans and the like. But now people watch my outfit, so I always have to pay attention to that. To me it's a source of stress.