But over three decades of marriage – including nine years as Japan’s first lady – she has proven to be nothing more than a traditional political wife.
On Friday, she took an hours-long train journey to rush to her husband’s side at Nara Hospital. The next day, she returned his body to his home in Tokyo by car. On Monday, she mourned with her relatives and guests a special awakening at Zojo-ji Temple.
Through it all, Aki Abe has remained outwardly calm when appearing in public.
On Tuesday, it will host a private funeral, followed by a larger ceremony later.
After her husband resigned as Prime Minister in December 2020, Akie Abe faded from view. Now she’s back in the spotlight – and the nation will look forward to her grieving the death of its former leader.
Abe’s domestic opposition party
“Aki Abe – as First Lady – was certainly different from many of her predecessors,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress.
Her support for progressive causes, free ways and cheerful confidence made her endearing to the Japanese public.
Among the Japanese media, Akie Abe has earned a nickname – like the “domestic opposition party” led by Shinzo Abe.
With a penchant for speaking her mind, she openly challenged a wide range of her husband’s policies, from his push for nuclear power to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. In 2016, she met protesters in Okinawa who opposed the expansion of the US Marine Corps base, which Shinzo Abe supported.
“I want to capture and convey opinions that don’t reach my husband or his circle. This is a bit like an opposition party, I think,” she told Bloomberg in 2016.
Her progressive views sometimes seemed at odds with more conservative values.
Aki Abe has been an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights, joining the Tokyo Gay Pride Parade in 2014. She also supports the use of medical marijuana, having taken photos in a sprawling cannabis field in 2015.
Despite their often opposing views, the couple had a love affair – and Akie Abe wasn’t shy about telling the public about it. The couple often held each other’s hands when getting off planes on their official foreign trips – a public display of affection rarely seen in political circles in Japan.
Shinzo Abe has appeared frequently in Akie Abe’s Instagram posts, smiling next to her at events or casual outings, petting his dog on the sofa, reading newspapers in the car — or standing with a bowl of udon curry.
On their 30th anniversary, Aki Abe posted a wedding photo of them wearing a kimono. On their 32nd anniversary, they celebrated their cherry-wine cream cake.
She was the first wife of a Japanese minister to actively use social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, where she shares excerpts from her life with tens of thousands of followers.
Aki Abe, the daughter of a confectionery magnate, 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, Aki Abe worked at the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu. At the age of twenty-two, she met Shinzo Abe, who was seven years older than him and worked as a political assistant. They dated for over two years before tying the knot in 1987.
The couple had no children. Aki Abe told Japanese media that they sought fertility treatment in the early days of their marriage, but to no avail.
Aki Abe was not satisfied with being confined to a domestic role. She worked as a radio DJ in the 1990s, and after her husband resigned from his first job as prime minister in 2007, she came up with a plan to open an izakaya bar.
“When (Shinzo) Abe was eager to get back to his driving in 2012, it was right at the same time that she was busy preparing to open a restaurant. This was something she had wanted to do for a while and thought with (Shinzo) Harris, author of Icon Shattering. : Shinzo Abe and the New Japan,” After Abe exited the premiership in 2007, she finally had this opportunity.
“So I made him promise that she would still be able to open her business and she went ahead with that and it was a really great restaurant.”
The izakaya, called “UZU” – meaning whirlpool in English, was opened in 2012 in the Kanda district of Tokyo, months before Shinzo Abe began his second term as prime minister.
She even grew her own organic rice, in a field in her husband’s home county, and served it in her restaurant.
In 2015, she was photographed in a rice field planting rice with then-US ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, wearing traditional women’s work pants, barefoot in murky waters.
In the years before her return as first lady, Aki Abe went back to college and earned a master’s degree in Social Design Studies from Rikkyu University.
She told The Wall Street Journal in 2013, “That was a setback and a hard time for us as a couple. After a while, he decided to refocus on his political life. I felt like I needed to start my own life.”
“It shows that she really tried – throughout his political life – to remain her own person, to not just be a politician’s wife who would show up and only be expected to do the things Japan expects political wives to do,” Harris said.
“I don’t necessarily think she was satisfied or eager to play that role.”