Tokyo: The top bureaucrat at Japan’s finance ministry on Monday denied allegations he sexually harassed female journalists and said he would sue the magazine that first reported the claims.
The ministry meanwhile called on female journalists who accuse Junichi Fukuda of harassment to come forward and cooperate with its investigation into the claims.
The Shukan Shincho magazine last week reported that Fukuda had sexually harassed several female journalists, and on Friday released audio of what it said was the top bureaucrat at a bar with a reporter.
“I’ll tie up your hands. Can I touch your breasts?” a male voice on the recording says.
“Shall we have an affair once the budget is approved?”
The reporter, who has not been named, cannot be heard on the recording and the identity of the male voice could not be independently verified.
The magazine said several other women, who have not been identified, also accused Fukuda of inappropriate behaviour, including asking to kiss them and take them to a hotel.
On Monday Fukuda issued a statement through the ministry denying the allegations against him. “I did not have such a conversation with a female reporter,” he said.
“From time to time I go out for meals with both male and female reporters after working hours, but from the beginning, I did not have an exchange such as that reported by the magazine with any female reporter,” Fukuda said.
“I don’t recognise that I made sexually harassing remarks that would make female reporters feel offended.”
Fukuda said he had no intention of resigning and added that he would sue the magazine for libel.
Shukan Shincho told AFP it stood by its reporting which was “all based on facts”.
Finance Minister Taro Aso initially appeared to dismiss the allegations against Fukuda, saying he had given the top bureaucrat a verbal warning and felt he was “sufficiently remorseful.”
But he subsequently said Fukuda would be fired if the allegations were proven, and the finance ministry said Monday it had asked independent lawyers to investigate.
“If there are female reporters who were in the situations with administrative vice minister Fukuda described by the weekly magazine, (the ministry) would like them to cooperate with the investigation,” the ministry said in a statement.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is already facing twin cronyism scandals that have dragged down the premier’s normally high approval ratings.
Abe has denied wrongdoing in both scandals.
Japan has one of the world’s worst records for female political representation and has deeply entrenched gender attitudes.
Just 2.8 per cent of rape victims go to the police, according to a 2017 government survey, and the #MeToo movement that has raised awareness of sexual harassment worldwide has had a relatively muted reception in Japan.
Abe has made encouraging female participation in the workforce a central part of his “Abenomics” economic programme, a plank sometimes dubbed “Womenomics.”
But analysts say he has made little inroads with female voters and the finance ministry scandal will not help.
“The sexual harassment scandal of a top finance ministry bureaucrat is a blow to Abe, whose government is not very popular among female voters,” said Tetsuro Kato, professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.
The ruling party’s junior coalition partner Komeito “is very sensitive to its female supporters”, Kato added.