Recruiters at central government offices have wound up a particularly hectic hiring season this year as they were faced with a new challenge — a tug of war over the best and the brightest female candidates to fulfill Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s order to raise the ratio of women among new employees to 30 percent or more.

Abe’s call was part of measures to encourage greater female participation in the workforce, one of the major pillars of his “Abenomics” reforms aimed at revitalizing the economy.

Among all national civil servants hired in fiscal 2013, which ended March 31, including rank-and-file clerical positions, 26.8 percent were female. The ratio was 27.3 percent among those who were hired for career-track administrative positions. Abe’s goal, issued last November, is to be reached in fiscal 2015, the year that starts next April 1.

“This year we (recruiters from the central government ministries and agencies) are competing with each other for female students. Our office isn’t so popular among women, so we’re having a hard time,” an official said during a job briefing session for university students in mid-April.

Students expecting to graduate next March took examinations for career-track jobs from April 27 to June 13, and results were released June 23. Those who passed the exams then visited ministries and agencies of their choice for interviews between June 25 and July 9. Successful candidates have been fielding job offers since July 10.

For the applicants, the two-week interview period was undoubtedly the most crucial opportunity to impress recruiters in hopes of landing a job at the office of their top choice. For the recruiters it was also the most important stage as they vied with each other for the cream of the crop.

The ministries and agencies were prohibited from contacting prospective candidates while the exams were ongoing, as well as during the two days between the announcement of exam results and the start of the interview period.

But many recruiters broke the rule, according to a senior official at one government office.

In some cases, female senior officials phoned female students who had passed the exams as soon as the results were known, so as to encourage the students to join their office, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Ministries and agencies also made various efforts to attract female candidates. The Finance Ministry, for example, offered five career-track places — an unprecedented number — to female candidates for fiscal 2014. For recruitment next spring, it increased the number of briefing sessions this year for female students by 1½ times that in the previous year.

The Financial Services Agency, which already achieved a 50-50 ratio in its hiring for career track jobs in fiscal 2014, appointed a 34-year-old female official as an assistant section chief in charge of recruitment. This in itself was new as such positions are usually held by men.

One of the most successful examples in hiring women was at Health, Labor and Welfare. The ministry is known for being relatively proactive in the employment and advancement of female staff.

Last year, Atsuko Muraki, 58, was promoted to vice minister to become only Japan’s second-ever female vice minister.

Recruiters at some ministries and agencies were desperate.

Among them was the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, where women formed only 16 percent of all newly hired career track employees for fiscal 2013.

“I hope to see many women take up jobs in (the fields of) engineering and construction. It’s important for the land ministry itself to set an example,” minister Akihiro Ota said.

Another ministry that had a tough time meeting the 30 percent goal was Internal Affairs and Communications.

Many posts in the ministry require frequent relocations, which tends to be unattractive to women, a senior official said.

Meanwhile, female job seekers were taking the situation coolly.

A 23-year-old graduate school student at the University of Tokyo said, “I think it’s nice for a target to be set, but in the end, what’s important is to be able to work irrespective of sex.”

She was hoping to land a job either in the Cabinet Office or the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The scramble to employ more women into national civil service is likely to remain a challenging task for recruiters for some time.

Nahomi Ichimiya, 65, who became the first woman to lead the National Personnel Authority, said during a news conference upon taking office in April that “persistent efforts” by the central government are important with regard to promoting women’s full participation in the civil service.

“I would not want to let it be just a temporary boom,” she said.