Tea-server turned top bureaucrat

RESOLUTE: Japan's Adminstrative Vice-Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, Ms Atsuko Muraki, joined the bureaucracy in 1978.


    Oct 25, 2013

    Tea-server turned top bureaucrat

    ON MS 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 to 30 people.

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

    "I felt it couldn't be helped," she 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, Ms Muraki is Administrative Vice-Minister at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, and Japan's most senior woman bureaucrat.

    Along the way, she had to overcome not only discrimination, but also corruption charges that later proved to be false. She spent five months in detention during an investigation into a 2009 fraud case.

    The 57-year-old mother of two is a symbol of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pledge to put women in 30 per cent of leadership positions in Japan by 2020.

    "I wanted to work for my whole life," the bespectacled Muraki said in her large, spare office at the ministry. "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 (S$373 billion). Her ministry is charged with many of the most pressing issues facing Japan, from childcare to pensions and health care.

    Ms Muraki was one of 22 women among the 800 recruited under the bureaucracy's career track when she joined in 1978. Life as a woman bureaucrat has changed remarkably over the span of her career.

    She said: "When I joined, section managers would refuse to take woman hires.

    "About 10 years later, they would say: 'A capable woman is preferable to a completely incompetent man.' Now, they say: 'Whoever. Just give us the most able people'."

    Still, Ms Muraki struggled with the long hours required of Japanese bureaucrats while raising her daughters.

    "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 said early, I meant 10pm."