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Questions arise over status of PM's wife in Diet debate on school operator's land deal

Akie Abe (Mainichi)

The question of whether the prime minister's wife is a public figure has emerged as a point of contention in Diet debate on scandal-hit school operator Moritomo Gakuen's questionable acquisition of a state-owned land lot.

It came to light during a House of Councillors Budget Committee session on March 3 that at least one government official assigned as a support staffer for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie accompanied her when she visited a kindergarten in Osaka run by the Moritomo Gakuen school corporation in September 2015.

During the session, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami stated that Akie Abe is a private citizen.

"The prime minister's wife isn't appointed by the government as a public servant. So she's not a public figure. She supports the prime minister's official duties as a private individual," Nogami said.

Mizuho Fukushima of the opposition Social Democratic Party then asked Nogami why a government official accompanied the prime minister's wife even though she is a private figure.

Nogami responded, "The official helped her by adjusting her schedule and communicating on her behalf."

Fukushima further grilled Nogami on whether the first lady's activities are public or private.

Nogami replied, "She supports the prime minister's official duties. Therefore, her activities aren't official duties. I would dare to say these are private activities.

Opposition parties have called into question the fact that Akie Abe was previously named as honorary principal of the elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen plans to open on the lot it has purchased in Osaka Prefecture this coming April.

Kazuya Shimba, chair of the Diet Affairs Committee of the largest opposition Democratic Party upper house caucus, told a news conference, "The prime minister's wife is a public figure. She has responsibility to explain why she accepted the position of honorary principal.

In an upper house Budget Committee session on March 1, Prime Minister Abe argued that his wife is a private figure. "My wife is a private person. It's extremely unpleasant that she's being treated like a criminal," he said.

According to the government, two full-time and three part-time public servants have been assigned as support staff for the prime minister's wife.

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