Education is the starting point for opportunity, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama said Thursday as she and her Japanese counterpart Akie Abe showcased efforts to help girls stay in or return to school.
“Like so many women I was able to achieve both my professional and personal goals because of my education,” Mrs. Obama said after Abe announced plans for Japan to support the “Let Girls Learn” project aimed at promoting education for girls in the developing world.
“My education is the starting point for every opportunity in my life,” Mrs. Obama said. “When we put limits on women’s lives we stifle their full potential.”
“Let Girls Learn” will support a variety of projects, from building toilets, providing security and helping girls afford or make school uniforms to encouraging greater awareness of the role education of both genders plays in sustainable economic development.
“But we all know that the problem here isn’t just about infrastructure and resources. It’s also about attitudes and beliefs. It’s about whether fathers — and mothers — think their daughters are as worthy of an education as their sons.”
The two first ladies have different backgrounds. The U.S. first lady is a Princeton-educated lawyer. Abe is the daughter of the former president of a leading Japanese confectioner, Morinaga & Co.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has conservative views on gender equality, but the first lady is a businesswoman, owns a bar in downtown Tokyo, and supports local artists and craftsmen.
After attending a discussion session with Japanese college students and with Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan and daughter of President John F. Kennedy, Mrs. Obama ate lunch with Mrs. Abe at her restaurant, Uzu. She later told the prime minister that it was delicious.
“I’ve actually never been there,” Abe quipped.
“Maybe next time I come to visit, you can join us,” Mrs. Obama said.
Mrs. Abe is soft spoken, but has described herself as the “domestic opposition,” at times openly disagreeing with her husband.
But she has actively backed his high-profile campaign to promote greater gender equality in government and business.
“Some girls must give up their future or their education,” she said. “To commute to school. To chat with a friend. To believe in your possibilities. These happy things that are taken for granted in our countries can never be attained by children in some developing countries. This is the harsh reality.”
As a major aid donor, Japan plans to cooperate with the community-based, Peace Corps-run “Let Girls Learn” initiative recently announced by President Barack Obama and his wife. On Thursday it announced plans to devote 42 billion yen ($340 million) over three years to supporting girls’ empowerment and gender sensitive education.
The U.S. has earmarked $250 million in new and reallocated funds to support the initiative, and is also hoping to win more backing from the private sector and crowd-funding.
The Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers will also cooperate with the Peace Corps, in implementing the Let Girls Learn program which is being rolled out initially in 11 countries — Albania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Georgia, Ghana, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Togo and Uganda.
The U.S. and Japan are using the initiative to also underscore their partnership as close allies, and Mrs. Obama’s stop in Japan is seen here as a “makeup” call after she did not accompany her husband during his state visit to Tokyo last year.
Abe is soon due to make a reciprocal visit to the U.S.
In a gesture of cordiality, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko received Mrs. Obama at their home deep inside the verdant, secluded grounds of the Imperial Palace — a quiet interlude in an otherwise hectic schedule.
Mrs. Obama complimented the Emperor on the beauty of the cherry blossoms that have just begun to bloom, and he replied that the trees were from the southern islands of Okinawa.
Fitting in some sightseeing on Friday, Mrs. Obama will visit a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine in the ancient capital, Kyoto, before going to Cambodia.