[IMPACT Interview] First Lady Akie Abe (Part 3/3) “Today’s young people and women have excellent entrepreneurial instincts”

2016/05/26 | By IMPACT Japan

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Akie Abe (Part 3/3)
Today’s young people and women have excellent entrepreneurial instincts

This is the third interview with Akie Abe, Japan’s First Lady. She discovered the entrepreneurial instincts of young people and women through her continued activities to assist reconstruction in the disaster-affected areas.

This covers the latter portion of her presentation from the Post-Disaster Innovation Forum (PIF) 2016 held at the INTILAQ Tohoku Innovation Center.

Akie Abe
Akie was born in Tokyo in 1962 and married Shinzo Abe in 1987. She is not your stereotypical First Lady and instead engages in a wide range of activities, including setting up schools in Myanmar, farming fertilizer-free “Akie Rice” in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and running the UZU izakaya. She has also declared herself to be “the opposition party at home” by openly disagreeing with the policies of the Abe administration.

Japan’s future rests on the ideas and actions of young people today

I spoke about the seawall problem with high school students. While adults listen, I have not found anyone with specific proposals. High school students, however, are genuinely interested in what they can do. One proposal they offered was to take photographs at various stages as the seawall is built and prepare them as an archive.

These photos would be shared with the entire country for everyone to see, and if people are struck by an earthquake and tsunami at some other location in the future, they could use these photos when making their decisions. Some students suggested that this is a way to provide a catalyst for thinking about what democracy really is. The number of photos is gradually increasing.

While adults might be critical of “today’s young people,” young people have many ideas. My genuine impression of Ayaka Nirei and Ruka Saito is that they have incredible ideas and drive. I have high hopes for what young people and everyone here today can achieve and believe that you can create a great future for Japan.

Fasting is one of the many ways we can prepare for disasters

On an entirely different topic, I spoke with some people who fast, and we discussed the fear that human beings experience if they have no food for a few days following a disaster. One suggestion was that fasting under normal conditions might contribute in a crisis. I have fasted before, and people who have experienced fasting know that a human being is not going to die even if they do not eat for about three days. Food might not be immediately supplied to a refuge site, or there might not be food to eat at home. While one might normally panic in this situation, the experience of fasting helps foster an understanding that things will be all right if food arrives in two or three days and just having water is enough.

While I’m not sure whether it is good for young people to fast, I think the experience of fasting for a few days for adults is one way of preparing to avoid panic if they face a disaster. It might not contribute to disaster risk reduction, the theme of this event, but could be beneficial in some way. I wanted to share this point because the fasting instructors indicated that people who had actually fasted were calm during the disaster.

The disaster is a catalyst for building towns and a country that reflect the views of women and young people

This is my final point. I was speaking to people from Minami Sanriku before participating in this event. They are in the process of deciding to abandon efforts to restore the Kesennuma train line that connected Sendai to Kesennuma because of the problem of who would pay for the rebuilding costs. They petitioned to me that this is a major concern.

Elimination of the train and switching to a bus commute for children from Minami Sanriku who attended schools in Kesennuma means lengthening the time from one hour until now, to an hour and a half. This eliminates their ability to participate in club activities.

Senior citizens will have difficulty traveling to hospitals if they cannot use the train. Loss of the train will make things very inconvenient.

Nevertheless, decisions are being made by the town or at even higher levels that go against the wishes of the local people. I think this is similar to the seawall problem. The people actually living in the area, and particularly young people, need to ask themselves if this is the kind of town they want to live in. My sense from my discussion with people in Minami Sanriku is that the local residents need to lead restoration efforts while keeping this question in mind.

The people who came to make the petition were all women.

They told me that women are considered to be inferior to men in the Tohoku area. I think this might be happening throughout Japan, not only in Tohoku. Men, who are considered to be part of the elite, are making the decisions. While it may have seemed as if things were going smoothly with this approach, I think it is vital that we use the disaster as a catalyst for change.

The views of women and young people held almost no sway in town and national decisions up to now. That is why women and young people, such as yourselves, need to use the disaster as a catalyst, raise your voices and ensure that new perspectives are taken into account. I believe this can lead to a better world.

I diverged somewhat from the theme of disaster risk reduction, but hopefully this was still informative. Thank you.

Interview postscript – INTILAQ writer’s comments
Akie Abe, who serves as Japan’s First Lady and is also actively engaged in her own initiatives in various areas, has a softer demeanor than her lively track record as an entrepreneur might suggest.

Her approach of wanting to be true to herself and live without regrets following the lessons of past failures is not something extraordinary. People leading very normal daily lives can transform themselves with just a single catalyst. This interview surely demonstrates the fact that anyone can take that step of becoming an entrepreneur.

Akie Abe, who speaks about making the world a better place without worrying about taking risks and about helping the people in one’s life achieve happiness, might just be at the forefront of reforming and innovating the definition of a “First Lady” in a way that is befitting the 21st century.

I am very interested in what happens next in her assistance for the disaster-affected areas, including the seawall issue, and new activities, such as the lodging facility slated to open in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Hopefully we can have the opportunity to speak again. Thank you!

Lodging facility in Yamaguchi Prefecture: “Make Shimonoseki a world-leading port town! Reviving the town with the multifaceted UZU House”


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