Six opposition parties jointly refused Thursday to arrange any new Diet deliberations in protest over alleged sexual harassment of female reporters by a top Finance Ministry official.
The official had resigned abruptly over the claims the day before, but political turmoil from the scandal continued to play out as the opposition parties stepped up political pressure on Finance Minister Taro Aso to also resign immediately.
Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of largest opposition force the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, met his counterpart Toshihiro Nikai of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party at the Diet and demanded the immediate resignation of Aso, who was responsible for the appointment of ex-Vice Administrative Minister Junichi Fukuda.
The scandal surfaced after weekly magazine Shukan Shincho uploaded last week to YouTube a recording of a conversation involving man believed to be Fukuda.
Fukuda has denied the allegations.
On Wednesday night, TV Asahi announced that one of its employees had been harassed by Fukuda, confirming the magazine report. The revelation significantly eroded the credibility of Fukuda’s denial and provided more ammunition to opposition lawmakers who had already been trying to force Aso to step down.
“We want the government and the ruling parties to quickly give us a response. Until then, we won’t attend any talks” to arrange new parliamentary sessions, the six parties said in a joint letter to Nikai.
The new scandal adds to the troubles faced by the Finance Ministry and Abe’s Cabinet, with the government already having been hit by a number of controversies in which key government officials are suspected of having lied to defend the administration.
Political observers say Aso could eventually be forced to resign. The 77-year-old lawmaker is also responsible for appointing Nobuhisa Sagawa, who resigned as the head of the National Tax Agency last month. Sagawa stepped down in the wake of a scandal involving the falsification of government documents regarding the ministry’s suspicious land deal with school operator Moritomo Gakuen.
If Aso resigns, it would serve a severe blow to Abe’s administration because he has been one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s closest and most powerful allies. The intraparty LDP faction led by Aso would be given a free hand to decide which candidate it would support in the LDP’s September presidential race, in which Abe plans to seek re-election.
The female employee said to have been subject to the harassment, whose name is being withheld by TV Asahi, conducted one-on-on meetings with Fukuda as part of her job. She had a conversation with Fukuda on April 4 in which he sexually harassed her, according to Shincho and the network.
Each time Fukuda made sexually aggressive comments, which prompted her to record later conversations “to protect herself,” Hiroshi Shinozuka, the head of the network’s news division, told a news conference.
“This worker was concerned that sexual harassment (by Fukuda) would be tacitly accepted (by the parties involved) unless his inappropriate acts were revealed to the public,” Shinozuka said.
TV Asahi admitted that it refused to respond when the employee first reported the harassment to a supervisor, which worsened her suffering.
The woman had proposed that the TV station report on Fukuda’s conduct, but the supervisor rejected the idea, apparently fearing that she would be identified publicly and face further psychological harm.
The denial from her supervisor eventually prompted her to approach the weekly magazine, Shinozuka said.
“We are doing some deep soul-searching over the fact that we could not appropriately respond when the employee in question reported the sexual harassment,” Shinozuka said in a prepared statement.
TV Asahi said it would file a “strong protest” with the Finance Ministry over Fukuda’s conduct and denials, Shinozuka said.
Nonetheless, the news organization believes it was “inappropriate” for the woman to provide information, including audio recordings, to an outside party, because she obtained the information through her duties gathering news, Shinozuka said.
The alleged sexual harassment has sparked debates over various issues related to the protection of women’s rights and journalism.
Some have slammed TV Asahi for failing to respond to the initial complaint by the female employee. TV Asahi admitted it was a grave mistake, but has also criticized the woman for approaching the weekly magazine and providing that outlet with the voice recordings after her proposal to TV Asahi was rejected.
During the news conference Shinozuka was asked which parties he believes committed the more serious error — the supervisor or the woman in question. He declined to answer.
Meanwhile the Finance Ministry has been criticized for issuing a statement urging any female reporters who believe they were harassed by Fukuda to contact a lawyer hired by the ministry and help its investigation into the magazine’s allegations.
Critics say in many cases it is extremely difficult for female victims of sexual harassment to come forward, given their often vulnerable position in the workplace.
On Wednesday, major media organizations that belong to the ministry’s press club issued a letter of protest refusing to cooperate with the ministry’s investigation. It is not clear whether the rights of victims would be properly protected by the lawyer hired by the ministry, and journalists are generally urged to keep their sources of information confidential, the letter said.