Jail Time No Bar To Tea-Server Turned Top Woman Bureaucrat

On Atsuko Muraki’s first day of work in Japan’s bureaucracy 35 years ago, she was given an assignment: help make tea each morning for the entire section of 20-30 people.

Her response was to do it -- and ask for more work.

“I felt it couldn’t be helped,” Muraki said. “At the same time, I asked my manager not to go easy on me in terms of my main duties. He trained me properly.”

Today, Muraki is administrative vice minister at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Japan’s most senior female bureaucrat and the second woman ever to reach that rank. Along the way she had to overcome not just discrimination but corruption charges that later proved to be false. During the investigation she spent five months in detention.

The 57-year-old mother of two is a symbol of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pledge to put women in 30 percent of leadership positions in Japan by 2020. Halting women’s tendency to drop out of the labor market in their 30s would release an untapped resource and bolster growth in the world’s third largest economy as the workforce shrinks, Abe says.

He has cited the influence of Kathy Matsui, chief Japan equity strategist at Goldman Sachs. Matsui wrote in an update this year to her long-running “Womenomics” report that increasing female employment to match that of males would mean 8 million more people in the labor force and a gross domestic product as much as 14 percent higher.

Best Option

“I wanted to work for my whole life,” the bespectacled Muraki said in her large, spare office at the ministry, where she hid a cheap plastic umbrella to keep it out of photographs. “It was important to me to find a workplace where I wouldn’t be discriminated against and where I wouldn’t be forced out if I married or had children. I thought the bureaucracy was the best option.”

She manages a staff of more than 30,000, with a budget of 29.4 trillion yen ($300 billion). Her ministry is charged with many of the most pressing issues facing Japan, from childcare to pensions and health care, whose costs are ballooning as the country ages.

Muraki worked her way up the ladder in roles mostly related to improving opportunities for women and the disabled. “In the past, people saw women as incapable of doing particular types of work, or of taking leadership roles,” she said, adding that the same stereotype targets disabled people.

Unlike Others

Yoshiaki Tajima, the director of Colony Unzen, a non-profit organization that provides services for the disabled, said Muraki’s rise to vice minister was a reflection of her talent. Muraki impressed him as different from other bureaucrats as soon as they met 15 years ago, he said in a phone interview.

“She was so eager to learn, when she had reached a position in the hierarchy where most people think they know it all,” he said. “She asked so many questions and she really seemed to enjoy her work.”

Born in the rural prefecture of Kochi, on the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Muraki was so shy at school that she would go for months without speaking to the child at the next desk, she said in her 2011 memoir, “Never Give Up.” She graduated from a local university and joined the then-Labour Ministry -- the forerunner of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare -- in 1978, partly because businesses didn’t at that time offer career opportunities for women. Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunities law took effect in 1986.

Serving Tea

The only person from her university to take the national bureaucracy’s career-track entrance exam, Muraki missed the window for interviews with ministries in Tokyo because she was unfamiliar with the recruitment process, she said in her book. She got one of her university professors to write a letter of introduction and persuaded the Labour Ministry to see her after other applicants had already received their job offers.

Muraki became one of 22 women among the 800 recruited under the bureaucracy’s career track for that year. On her first day at work she was informed that, as a woman, she would have to help a clerical assistant serve tea. Each of her colleagues had their own personal cup and she balanced them on a tray to deliver them to each desk, taking the opportunity to try to get to know her co-workers.

Life as a female bureaucrat has changed remarkably over the span of her career, Muraki said: “When I joined, section managers would refuse to take the female new hires. About 10 years later they would say, ‘A capable woman is preferable to a completely incompetent man.’ Now they say, ‘Whichever. Just give us the most able people.’”

Dropping Out

Abe’s goal of creating a society where “women can shine” was supported in a letter received from former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today.

There is a long way to go. A report distributed this month by Minister of State for Gender Equality Masako Mori shows that while about a quarter of career-track recruits to the bureaucracy are female, only 2.6 percent of posts from section chief upward are held by women.

The pattern holds across other sectors. Just two members of Abe’s 19-strong cabinet are female and a fresh lineup of 25 political vice-ministers unveiled last month included only four women. Women make up 15 percent of department managers across all sectors, according to the health ministry.

Ambassador to Italy

The first woman to reach the peak of the bureaucracy was Nobuko Matsubara, who was appointed in 1997 to the top job at the then-Labour ministry. She later became an ambassador to Italy.

“Women’s pay is now about 70 percent that of men,” Muraki said in a speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington last month. “The main reasons for this are that they give up work part-way through their careers and that they are not promoted.”

Government measures to provide more childcare should improve the situation, she said, adding that she encourages younger female colleagues not to “run away” from chances for advancement.

Muraki struggled with the long hours required of Japanese bureaucrats while raising her two daughters and said she thought about quitting in her 30s when her elder daughter fell sick.

Tape Recordings

“It was difficult when I had to go home early while my male subordinates were still working late into the night,” she said. “When I say early, I mean 10 p.m.”

Her daughters say they saw little of her when they were growing up. “Even so, I knew she cared about me in her own way,” said the elder daughter in an essay in Muraki’s book, to which she didn’t attach her name. “She made recordings of herself talking to me and I would go to sleep listening to them every night.”

Muraki entered the public eye in 2009 when she was arrested and charged with falsely certifying an organization as representing disabled people so that it could claim cheaper postage rates. While detained, she used the unfamiliar free time to read 150 books.

Prosecutor Jailed

She was released and subsequently found not guilty in 2010 at a trial in which a subordinate testified that he had created the false certification alone.

A prosecutor was later jailed for 18 months for tampering with evidence and Muraki won 37.7 million yen in compensation from the government, according to her lawyer, Junichiro Hironaka. Muraki donated the money, minus trial expenses, to set up a foundation supporting disabled people who fall afoul of the law.

“I don’t know, I can only imagine,” Hironaka said when asked why his client had been targeted in the case. Allegations that she had been acting at the behest of opposition Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Hajime Ishii could have been intended to undermine the party, he said. At the time, it stood on the verge of taking power from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Vindicated and restored to her position at the ministry, Muraki was promoted to vice minister in July. She has attracted some criticism, according to former LDP lawmaker Yoichi Masuzoe, who was health minister when she was arrested.

Husband’s Help

“I’m a great supporter of hers,” Masuzoe said in a phone interview. “But I don’t like the way she appears to have been used for political purposes. By appointing a popular figure for whom people feel sympathy over the false charges, the Abe cabinet can maintain its popularity.”

In her Washington speech, Muraki hailed her fellow-bureaucrat husband, Taro, for being around to cook and do laundry, at a time when it was highly unusual for Japanese men to be involved in such tasks.

“I spoke to her husband while she was in detention and commented that it must be hard for him to deal with all the housework on his own,” said lawyer Hironaka. “He told me it was no problem because he’d always done all the housework. He’s an elite bureaucrat too, but he supported her in that way.”

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