Japan’s first lady offers some advice on economy

Outspoken Japanese first lady Akie Abe has said the country should consider cutting wasteful spending and boosting the economy before raising sales tax to 10 per cent.
Akie Abe says taxes are not being used efficiently. Picture: ReutersAkie Abe says taxes are not being used efficiently. Picture: Reuters
Akie Abe says taxes are not being used efficiently. Picture: Reuters

Mrs Abe – often called the “household opposition” for her tendency to speak out – made the comments as her husband, prime minister Shinzo Abe, considered the rise.

Mrs Abe is a rarity among Japan’s first ladies, most of whom have been largely ­invisible.

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While her outspokenness wins praise from fans, some cynics suspect that Mr Abe’s aides welcome her role as softening the image of a leader seen by ­detractors as a nationalist with pro-business policies.

“Considering the falling birth rate and ageing ­society, it probably can’t be helped,” Mrs Abe, 52, said in an interview, referring to an eventual rise in sales tax.

“There are still areas where, if not a waste, taxes are not being used properly and could probably be fixed. I can understand there are aspects that would be difficult if we don’t raise the sales tax, but in my personal opinion, before doing that, shouldn’t we put a bit of effort into the economy, fix what can be fixed and cut what can be cut? This won’t change just because I say so.”

Mr Abe must decide by ­December whether to proceed with a second-stage rise in the sales tax to 10 per cent that is planned for October 2015 to help curb Japan’s huge public debt and fund the ballooning costs of its ageing society.

But an initial rise to 8 per cent from April triggered a sharp contraction in the economy in the three months to June, raising doubts about whether the prime minister should go ahead with the hike.

Mrs Abe said she had urged her husband not to raise the levy to 8 per cent back in April to no avail.

Asked about this time, she said: “I wonder.”

Mrs Abe, the daughter of a confectionery company magnate who married her husband when he was an aide to his politician father, said a lot of people opposed many of his policies, such as recently ending a ban on the military fighting abroad since Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.

Some tell her that they worry that the premier is leading the country to war.

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“But I tell them that definitely won’t happen, so it’s OK,” she said Mr Abe has not held a summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping since taking office due to Sino-Japanese feuds over territory and wartime history.

He has called on Mr Xi to meet on the sidelines of an Asian-Pacific leaders gathering in November.

Mrs Abe said she hoped to meet Mr Xi’s wife, the popular Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan.

“I felt she is really beautiful and stylish and has an aura,” she said, referring to a meeting with Mrs Peng last year.

Mrs Peng herself has a far higher profile than many Chinese first ladies in the past.