Raw Japan

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Suspect shocks as much as the crime

June 16, 2009

It wasn’t just the arrest of a high-ranking bureaucrat suspected of falsifying paperwork in a multi-billion yen fraud that astounded the Japanese media this week. It was the fact that she was a woman.

Atsuko Muraki, a senior official at the Health and Welfare Ministry, was arrested on Monday on suspicion of issuing a fake certificate to allow a group involved in direct mail marketing to claim a disability discount on postal costs.  “Female ace arrested,” ran the headline in the Sankei newspaper, next to a picture of the long-haired Muraki, and other media offered a similar angle.

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The media reaction is perhaps not surprising. Less than 2 percent of managerial level staff in Japan’s national bureaucracy are women, government statistics show, and media said only four have ever reached Muraki’s rank in her ministry. Bureaucrats often complain that their long working hours affect their home lives.

“Japan is still a very male-dominated society, so it is very unusual for a woman to reach the top level of the bureaucracy,” said Professor Fukuko Kobayashi, who heads a gender research bureau at Tokyo’s Waseda University. “She must have been very talented and worked extremely hard to reach that position. Because it’s tough for a woman to get that far, people expected a lot of her.”

Women in general are expected to keep up higher moral standards than men in Japan, Kobayashi added.  “Women are excluded from the power system in Japan, which has tended to make them more idealistic,” she said. “Stereotypically, they are expected to be more sensitive to this kind of thing, to want to behave honestly.”

Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe expressed his regret over Muraki’s arrest.

“She was a star for working women,” he told reporters. “She was a capable woman and a very good manager, so it is a great shame.”

Muraki is the first bureaucrat of her rank in the Health and Welfare Ministry to be arrested, newspapers said.

“There are no precedents,” Masuzoe told reporters, when asked how he would deal with her. On Tuesday he replaced the 53-year-old Muraki with a male bureaucrat.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

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