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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 December 2006, 23:55 GMT
Japan PM's wife welcomes new role

Huge media interest has surrounded Japan's new first lady, Akie Abe, since her husband Shinzo Abe became the country's youngest leader since the end of World War II.

In her first interview with foreign media, Mrs Abe speaks exclusively to the BBC's Chris Hogg about how she wants to soften her husband's image and promote Japanese culture overseas.


Akie Abe, wife of Japan's prime minister
Akie Abe says she is settling into her role as Japan's first lady

Japan hasn't had a first lady for several years. What kind of first lady do you hope to be?

The former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, was single. Now when I accompany my husband on his travels abroad, I hope to contribute during his overseas trips and also, if I can, introduce Japan's culture to the outside world.

Has it been difficult to get used to be in the public eye like this?

When my husband first became secretary general of the [governing] party, there were many camera crews stationed in front of my house. So that was my first experience, but this time it's different.

The wife of the prime minister is a very special position... I would like to contribute and I would like to be useful
Akie Abe

We have more people paying attention to us. I am starting to get accustomed to this environment, but things have changed greatly. It is sometimes difficult but it is also testimony that many people are supporting us and it gives me pleasure too.

The papers write a lot about what you are wearing and what you say. Do you pay much attention to what the media say about you?

I don't have very much time to watch TV shows. I do hear some of what people are saying on TV but I try to make time to read magazines and newspapers so as to know what people say about me.

People don't say nice things about me all the time, so I feel down sometimes when I read the criticism. Initially, I found that in all newspaper articles, the story started by saying "she drinks", so it seems that the whole world knows I like alcohol.

Recently you had a chance to meet some of the other first ladies in the world at the Apec summit in Vietnam. What advice did they give you about how to cope with the pressure?

I had chance to spend some time with the wife of the Chinese President Hu Jintao and Mrs Bush. I heard a lot from Mrs Bush about what kinds of activities she has been involved in.

Akie Abe and Laura Bush at Apec in Hanoi on 19 November 2006
US First Lady Laura Bush has been a source of helpful advice

We did not talk much about the pressure itself but Mrs Bush said she had found it rather difficult to cope with the new environment when she first became the first lady and so I felt that I could get accustomed to this new position in time.

With the other first ladies, I went sightseeing and we had lunch together so we had some opportunity to chat but not in great depth. But they were aware that I was there for the first time and they were quite kind to me, caring for me and telling me I didn't have to be so nervous.

First ladies like Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton became famous around the world. The wife of the British prime minister, Cherie Booth, is also pretty famous. Looking at those three women, who would you take as your role model?

I am sure Mrs Clinton is a wonderful person and of course I had the pleasure of actually meeting Mrs Laura Bush and I found her to be a wonderful person as well.

I have never met Mrs Blair but when my husband accompanied the then prime minister of Japan to the UK, he was invited to the official residence. He talked about the very friendly, hospitable atmosphere there, so I feel very close to Mrs Blair and I would like to meet her.

It's not that I want any one of them to be my role model though. I would like to be myself and I would like to learn from their good strength and incorporate that.

A lot of people here are very interested in you because you and your husband represent a new generation, a younger generation. A lot of young women will be looking to you to see you as a role model. How do you feel about that?

Well I don't consider myself or ourselves as role models. But what I want to do is when I go abroad, I want to be proud to be Japanese and to show the good aspects of being Japanese - the good aspects of Japanese women. And at the same time I would like to grow through such efforts.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said the prime minister's job is one of the most difficult jobs in Japan. How do you support your husband, when he's doing such a difficult job?

I think health is most important. I believe he needs to be in good health to be able to perform in his job. I want to support him and to make sure he is in good condition both physically and mentally at all times.

Of course, once he has left the residence, there are many people who support him, but I would say there aren't too many that he can be totally frank with and trust fully.

I want to be the number one ally for my husband and I would like to support him in whatever he does.

So you are the number one ally for your husband, but will you also be pushing your agenda in the way, for instance, Laura Bush has been an advocate for literacy. Are there issues and concerns you want to try to push forward while you are in this job?

Of course I am not a politician so I don't intend to link whatever I do to policy at all. I don't intend to do that at all, but I would like to continue doing what I was interested before, even now that my position has changed.

One such interest is education for children. I had a chance to visit a juvenile reformatory in Hiroshima and I was quite impressed with the education policy there so I am wondering if there is anything I can do to help promote such education.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and First Lady Akie Abe at a wreath-laying ceremony in Hanoi on 20 November 2006
The Abes are seen as representing a new generation

Also I am interested in establishing schools in poor areas in Asia. Also I would like to introduce Japanese culture to the outside world.

Another interest of mine is to increase care for those students from abroad who are studying in Japan - I wonder if there is anything I can do in my present position to help them like Japan more.

The wife of the prime minister is a very special position. If there is something only I can do while I am in this position then I would like to contribute and I would like to be useful.

It's only been two months since my husband became prime minister, so I haven't had much time to solidify my ideas about what I would like to do. I am currently exploring a number of ideas right now.

Is it fun?

(Pauses) Yes.

What is fun about it?

I am able to have experiences that normally I would not be able to and I am able to meet people who normally I would not be able to meet.

I am getting lots of stimulation from such experiences and I am sure that I will grow as a result of such experiences.


SEE ALSO
Abe elected as new Japan premier
26 Sep 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan PM's wife in rare interview
12 Oct 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Japan
26 Sep 06 |  Country profiles

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