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Raid at health ministry third blow for Aso

JAPANESE prosecutors raided the Health Ministry yesterday over a mail discount scam that has prompted the arrest of its top bureaucrat and deepened the woes of the government.

Last week a minister in Prime Minister Taro Aso's Cabinet resigned over a policy dispute and on Sunday the ruling party suffered its third consecutive loss in recent local elections.

Television footage yesterday showed dozens of prosecutors in business suits entering the Health Ministry building, a day after its top bureaucrat, Atsuko Muraki, 53, was arrested along with three other ministry officials.

Muraki is accused of issuing a fake certificate in 2004 to give government-backed postal discounts to an organization that had falsely claimed to represent the handicapped. Muraki reportedly denies any wrongdoing.

"I found the arrest extremely regrettable, as she was a capable supervisor," Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe told a news conference. "A promising career bureaucrat, she was a hope for many other working women."

Although the alleged crime happened before Aso took power, the scandal could deepen public antipathy toward his government. Aso has struggled to keep public support since taking office in September 2008. He faces general elections by this September at the latest.

Polls show support ratings for Aso's Cabinet have dropped to below 20 percent following last week's resignation of internal affairs and communications minister Kunio Hatoyama, who had been a close ally to the prime minister, after a dispute with Aso and the rest of the Cabinet over the reappointment of a postal company president.

In Sunday's election, a candidate for the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan won the mayoral seat in the city of Chiba, near Tokyo. Toshihito Kumagai becomes the nation's youngest mayor at 31. It was the Democratic Party's third victory in local elections in recent months.


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