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Sunday, May 1, 2011
Fighter for justice
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Atsuko Muraki was thrown into the public spotlight in 2009, when she was head of the Equal Employment, Children and Families Bureau at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
Back then, Japan's major news media suddenly started casting her as a lead perpetrator in a fraud allegation involving Tokyo-based Rin-no-kai, an organization that had improperly acquired government accreditation as a group working for the disabled in order to use a postage discount system available for such entities.
Muraki had never heard of Rin-no-kai, nor had she had any dealings with other suspects who had been linked to the group, but that didn't stop the media — fed daily with leaks from prosecutors — from stalking her.
"The approaches from the mass media were so fierce that I couldn't work at my ministry desk or go home," Muraki recalled in an interview published in the monthly Bungei Shunju magazine in October 2010. "Reporters were staked out in front of my apartment building, and sometimes sneaked inside the security entrance in order to approach me."
Then in June 2009, Muraki was arrested by the Osaka Public Prosecutors Office, put into solitary confinement and questioned for 20 days. After that period of interrogation, she was denied bail and detained for more than four months.
In many criminal cases in Japan, suspects subjected to such treatment own up to wrongdoings at this stage — even if they haven't committed any offense. Often that is because they fear they might never be released from detention if they don't confess. Investigators also try to sweet-talk suspects, telling them they will receive a lighter sentence if they admit to what they are being accused of.
But Muraki resisted the pressures and maintained her insistence that she had played no role in the Rin-no-kai postage scam. Nonetheless, a month after her arrest she was charged with instructing a junior ministry employee, Tsutomu Kamimura, to create a certificate for the group.
Then, in court, Kamimura retracted a confession he'd made in which he implicated Muraki and admitted that he had issued the official accreditation of his own volition.
He also said that he had been coerced by the investigators to go along with their story involving Muraki, and testified that prosecutors had completely fabricated Muraki's involvement in the case.
Though to this day prosecutors' motives have not been fully explained, the extent to which they cooked things up was quite amazing. It afterward emerged that they made up "secret" conversations, meetings and other exchanges between Muraki, Kamimura and others they brought into the case as alleged conspirators. They even tampered with "hard evidence" on one of Kamimura's floppy disks to make the timing of the alleged crime fit their scenario.
As these and other details of the complex frame-up unraveled in court, the affair developed into one of the biggest scandals in the history of Japan's postwar judicial system.
Muraki was finally acquitted in September 2010, and just last month the Osaka District Court sentenced Tsunehiko Maeda, the lead prosecutor in the postage fraud case — who had admitted to altering the floppy disk data — to 18 months in prison.
Throughout Muraki's ordeal prior to her court victory, many who believed in her innocence threw their support behind her from the beginning — including those who knew her through her work helping people with disabilities.
Among those was Yoichi Masuzoe, the then-health and labor minister, who broke away from the norm when asked for comment on her arrest. Instead of apologizing because a member of his ministry staff had "caused a problem," which is the protocol for such officials faced with scandals involving their organizations, Masuzoe described Muraki as "a highly competent bureau chief and the shining star for other working women."
What does Muraki think about it all now? Sitting at her desk in the Cabinet Office, where she was posted soon after her acquittal, and where she now works as the director-general of Policies on Cohesive Society, the 55-year-old native of Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku recalled that terrible time in her life, as well as her young days as a bookworm, her struggles as a working woman and mother, her lifelong passion for policies aiding those with disabilities, and much more.
This transcript of an hourlong interview reveals how a hard-working and well-respected bureaucrat motivated by noble aspirations to make people's lives better, fell victim to a malicious criminal investigation. It also demonstrates how this society's failed systems still leave ample room for innocent citizens to be tried for crimes with which they have no connection whatsoever — and how their lives can be irreversibly changed thereafter.
I understand that you grew up in Kochi Prefecture. What kind of child were you?
I used to cry a lot.
Really? In what kind of situation?
All the time. I wonder why ... (but) I remember crying a lot. Before entering elementary school, I was bullied a lot. One day I decided to resist, thinking the group of bullies couldn't understand the feelings of those they bullied. My revolt succeeded, and we all ended up becoming friends. From that time on, I cried less. But I was extremely shy. I was not an outgoing type. I would be one of those who would hide behind their mother, clinging to her clothes.
That's really surprising.
Yes. Maybe it got a little better after I started working.
You attended a local high school and then went to study at Kochi University's Economics Department. What was the main focus of your study?
I mainly studied public-sector economics and public finance.
What did you do when you weren't studying at college?
I was either working at part-time jobs or reading books.
What kind of books did you read?
Nothing to brag about (laugh). From early on, I had been interested in animal research, so I started with works by (French entomologist Jean-Henri Casimir) Fabre and (wildlife writer Ernest Thompson) Seton. I then moved on to (Austrian zoologist) Konrad Lorenz and all these other people. I also like mystery novels, including the Sherlock Holmes series (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, etc. Then at college I started reading Japanese mystery writers, including Bin Konno and Miyuki Miyabe. I like Michael Connelly, too.
After you graduated from Kochi University you passed the exam for top-tier central government bureaucrats. Why did you decide to become a bureaucrat?
My biggest reason back then was that in Kochi there wasn't a single private-sector company that would hire female four-year college graduates.