In Japan, women find rare parity in the prosecutors’ office

March 8, 2023 GMT
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Prosecutors Tomoko Suzuki, left, and Rina Ito pose for a photographer during an interview at Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Tokyo. Twenty years ago, only about 8% of Japanese prosecutors were women. By 2018, that number rose to nearly a third of newly hired prosecutors. This year, the male-female ratio reached 50-50, according to the Tokyo District Prosecutors Office. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
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Prosecutors Tomoko Suzuki, left, and Rina Ito pose for a photographer during an interview at Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Tokyo. Twenty years ago, only about 8% of Japanese prosecutors were women. By 2018, that number rose to nearly a third of newly hired prosecutors. This year, the male-female ratio reached 50-50, according to the Tokyo District Prosecutors Office. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

TOKYO (AP) — At the prosecutors’ office in Tokyo, everyone makes their own copies and tea — tasks often relegated to women in a country that’s been criticized for its lack of gender equality.

Twenty years ago, only about 8% of Japanese prosecutors were women. By 2018, that number rose to nearly a third of newly hired prosecutors. This year, the male-female ratio reached 50-50, according to the Tokyo District Prosecutors Office.

Japan ranks among the worst in gender equality for developed nations despite being No. 1 in equal access to education for women and men. So how are women finding equal footing in the esteemed field?

Prosecutor Rina Ito is quick to acknowledge that luck played a role, though her accomplishments didn’t hurt.

Ito graduated from the prestigious Keio University, whose founder Yukichi Fukuzawa was a proponent of women’s rights and where women make up nearly half of attendance. She then passed the national bar, the stringent test required of all Japanese prosecutors. Now she’s on her 10th year on the job.

“When you think about who has the task of pursuing the truth, among judges, defense lawyers and prosecutors, it’s the prosecutors,” Ito said in a February interview with The Associated Press. “Prosecutors can go after the truth. That’s why I set my heart on becoming a prosecutor.”

Tokyo District Prosecutors are Japan’s top-brass upholders of justice, notorious for going after corruption in the highest places: the Lockheed scandal of the 1970s that unseated a prime minister, the Recruit company insider trading debacle of the 1980s, and, more recently, bribery and bid-rigging related to the Tokyo Olympics.

Reaching gender parity, as in Ito’s occupation, is rare in Japan. Women tend to be over-represented in the service sector and among clerical workers, while being fewer in manufacturing, security personnel and management, according to Statista data. Only about 5% of listed companies’ board members are women, according to the Gender Equality Bureau in the Japanese Cabinet Office.

Ito’s mother was a full-time homemaker, and her father a “salaryman,” but neither has discouraged her from pursuing a career. Her husband cooks and helps take care of their 2-year-old daughter.

She also notes that prosecutors, male or female, get moved around a lot — as quickly as every year or two — to various regional offices throughout the nation. The shuffling makes it almost impossible to curry favor with bosses, or develop personal relationships that could affect advancement prospects and fair evaluation. That may help even out the score in Japan, which ranks 116th in gender equality in a list topped by Iceland and Finland, according to the latest data compiled by the World Economic Forum. The United States is No. 27.

Some men are also helping to even the playing field. Male prosecutors say they make a point to treat female colleagues equally.

“I have never viewed the women prosecutors as women,” Tokyo District Deputy Chief Prosecutor Hiroshi Morimoto said.

Prosecutors are taking paternity leave in growing numbers, easing the gap between men and women like prosecutor Tomoko Suzuki, who took maternity leave for a combined several years to have two sons and is back full-time at her job.

Parental leave — particularly paternity — is often frowned upon in Japan. Although both men and women have such privileges under Japanese law, men make up only about 14% of those taking parental leave, in contrast to 85% for women, according to government data. Informally, men say people are surprised and puzzled when they take time off work to be fathers.

Suzuki acknowledged juggling being a mother, wife and prosecutor is a serious challenge. She has relied on her parents, older sister and babysitters for help.

Her husband, who works in shipping, is based in Singapore. She puts her sons on a plane during school vacations. Her children are learning to make friends with flight attendants and enjoying Singapore’s diverse culture.

“Yes, it’s stressful and tough to live apart from my husband. But there are positives, too,” Suzuki said.

When they do get to meet, it’s like falling in love again. And he gets paid in Singapore dollars — a plus with Japanese yen declining recently.

“You can think that married couples must live together, which means I can’t be happy. Or you can think we are blessed with more varied experiences,” she said.

Suzuki, a Keio graduate like Ito, is now in management, overseeing younger prosecutors.

A prosecutor’s success isn’t measured by the number of guilty verdicts won, as in other countries. The conviction rate in Japan is higher than 99%, a statistic that’s been slammed by human rights advocates as “hostage justice.” Japan has had several high-profile cases in which innocent people were forced into false confessions.

Suzuki says the conviction rate has been taken out of context.

“The fact is that we don’t prosecute many of the cases. We don’t bring to trial those cases that aren’t likely to produce guilty verdicts,” said Suzuki, who has some 20 years’ experience in the field. “That’s why the conviction rate is 99%.”

“We also need to try harder to communicate what’s going on,” she said.

Communication skills are far more important than guilty verdicts, Suzuki said, because perpetrators and victims alike are hesitant to talk to prosecutors, whose work includes helping people who have been convicted rehabilitate and rejoin society. Having female prosecutors is helpful when victims request to speak with a woman, as is sometimes the case with sex-related crimes.

But usually, Ito and Suzuki said, individual ability is all that matters.

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Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama