Michelle Obama, visiting Japan, speaks of 'crisis' as 62 million girls denied school-going

TOKYO (AFP) - United State First Lady Michelle Obama spoke Thursday of a "crisis" gripping the world as she launched an initiative to help get girls into education, on the second day of her trip to Japan.

Mrs Obama told an audience of women in Tokyo that 62 million girls around the world were being denied the right to go to school. "It is truly a crisis," said Mrs Obama, wearing a bright, floral patterned jacket and skirt.

"We often focus on the economic barriers girls face - school fees or uniforms, or how they live miles from the nearest school and have no safe transportation, or how the school in their community doesn't have bathroom facilities for girls.

"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."

Mrs Obama, who arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday without her husband President Barack Obama, said both Japan and the United States were big donors in the Let Girls Learn initiative, which aims to help young women in developing countries.

The US First Lady was speaking alongside Mrs Akie Abe, the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Ms Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy and the current American ambassador to Japan.

US officials said Wednesday they were investigating threats made against Ms Kennedy, after a man reportedly telephoned the US embassy saying he would kill her.

Later in the day, Mrs Obama was due to meet the Prime Minister, as well as Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace.

On Friday, she will visit tourist hotspot Kyoto, where she will go to the 1,200-year-old Kiyomizu Buddhist temple, a stunning wooden structure set in the hills around Japan's ancient capital, as well as a similarly-aged Shinto shrine.

She will fly to Cambodia, one of the first 11 countries the initiative will be operating in, on Friday afternoon from Osaka.

Mrs Obama's visit comes ahead of the Japanese Premier's planned visit to Washington in late April.

Japanese media have reported that Mr Abe is expected to make a speech on the US-Japan relationship before a joint session of the US Congress.

If the speech is realised, it would be the first time a Japanese premier has addressed Congress since 1961, when Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda spoke before the House of Representatives.

Mr Abe's grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was arrested, but never charged, for war crimes, addressed Congress in 1957.

Mr Obama came to Japan in April last year, but his wife was absent because their daughters were at school.