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Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrat quits over sex harassment claims, dealing another blow to Abe government

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

In a fresh blow to the scandal-hit Abe administration, the Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrat, Administrative Vice Minister Junichi Fukuda, was forced to step down Wednesday after a weekly magazine publicized last week a voice recording of what it claimed was him sexually harassing a female journalist.

“I can’t continue my duty in this situation,” Fukuda, 58, told reporters on Wednesday in announcing his resignation.

Fukuda also reiterated his denial of the allegations made by the magazine, saying he still plans to file a lawsuit against the publisher.

“I haven’t made any remarks like those reported” by the Shukan Shincho, Fukuda said.

Last week’s issue of the weekly Shukan Shincho carried an article quoting several anonymous female reporters saying Fukuda repeatedly harassed them with sexual remarks during one-on-one meetings.

The magazine also uploaded recorded conversation onto YouTube in which a man believed to be Fukuda can be heard saying, “Can I touch your boobs?,” “Should we have an affair when the budget is enacted?” and “I will tie your hands.”

Asked if the recorded voice is genuine or not, Fukuda said on Wednesday that he himself can’t tell because he normally hears his own voice echoing inside his own head.

Fukuda has from the beginning denied the allegations made by the magazine, and Finance Minister Taro Aso earlier said he was not thinking of investigating or punishing the vice minister.

Then Shukan Shincho posted the YouTube clip, which led to Fukuda stepping down.

The latest scandal could impact the government’s plan to raise the consumption tax to 10 percent from the current 8 percent in October next year, with economists saying the incident may make it even more politically difficult to raise the unpopular tax, given growing frustration by voters with the Finance Ministry.

Asked about a possible negative effect on tax policy, Fukuda emphasized on Wednesday that any scandals involving ministry officials and policy matters should be addressed separately.

“It would be really regrettable if my lack of virtue impacts” policy matters at the Finance Ministry, he said.

In the uploaded YouTube video, Shincho erased the voice of a person that is alleged to be the female journalist to protect her privacy.

Meanwhile, in a move that has drawn strong public criticism, the Finance Ministry has urged reporters who believe they were harassed by Fukuda to come forward and help in its investigation into the magazine’s allegations.

Critics blasted the idea, saying in many cases, particular for women, it is extremely difficult for victims of sexual harassment to come forward in public, given their weak positions in the work place.

Joining the Finance Ministry in 1982, Fukuda took up the position in July last year after serving in a number of key roles at the powerful ministry, including the head of the Budget Bureau.

The latest scandal is likely to further weaken the political clout of the Finance Ministry, whose public reputation has already been heavily damaged by a document-tapering scandal involving ultra-nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which once had close ties with Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Last month Aso admitted that some ministry officials falsified dozens of sections of government documents related to the ministry’s heavily discounted land sale deal with Moritomo Gakuen.

Deleted sections included all mention of the first lady, which has deepened public suspicion that the ministry gave an 86 percent discount to the school operator believing the first lady might have been behind its bid to buy the land for the school in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture.