The Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrat formally resigned on Tuesday over sexual harassment allegations, with his retirement benefits — estimated to total around ¥53 million ($487,000) — suspended until the ministry decides whether to take disciplinary action.
Administrative Vice Minister Junichi Fukuda has denied the allegations — which were levied by female reporters — but offered to give up his post last week, saying it had become difficult to perform his duties at a time when the ministry has been mired in a separate scandal.
Opposition parties took issue with the government’s decision to accept Fukuda’s resignation without reprimanding him. But Finance Minister Taro Aso said the ministry needs to gather facts to determine the accuracy of the sexual harassment claims, first reported in the Shukan Shincho weekly magazine. If punishment is deemed to be appropriate, the amount of retirement pay will be cut accordingly, Aso said.
The magazine reported that Fukuda made sexually suggestive comments to female reporters. It later released an audio clip allegedly of Fukuda asking a female reporter “Can I give you a kiss?” and “Can I give you a hug?”
In the face of Fukuda’s denials, TV Asahi alleged that one of its female reporters was a victim of sexual harassment by the bureaucrat, revealing that she had handed the audio recording over to the magazine.
“It’s extremely regrettable that our vice finance minister, who oversees administrative affairs, is stepping down over sexual harassment allegations,” Aso told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.
“There are various views, including one that he was framed,” Aso added. “In that sense, we need to protect his human rights, so we can’t decide (on punishment) unless we hear both sides of the story.”
That comment drew the ire of some opposition lawmakers who have demanded Fukuda be reprimanded.
“He is treating the victim (of sexual harassment) as if she was a perpetrator,” said Mizuho Fukushima of the Social Democratic Party said.
Aso himself has faced increasing calls from opposition parties to resign in order to take responsibility for having picked Fukuda, but he said Tuesday he has no intension of doing so, adding that his priority is to get to the truth and take preventive measures.
As part of its own investigation, the Finance Ministry has been asking female reporters who feel they have been sexually harassed by Fukuda to come forward and contact lawyers selected by the ministry. That approach, however, has been criticized by lawmakers and people supporting sexual harassment victims as lacking sensitivity and neutrality.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday apologized to Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
“A series of events have damaged the people’s confidence in the government. I am sorry,” Abe told Yamaguchi during a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Kaori Sato, who seeks to protect the rights of women as a labor union member, called on Fukuda to apologize first for creating an environment where the female reporter had to come forward with the sexual harassment allegation.
Sato described the situation, in which the government approved the resignation without getting to the bottom of the issue, as “grave.”
“I will continue to protest because I can’t tolerate her voice being treated as if it doesn’t exist,” Sato said.
Independent journalist Soichiro Tahara said Aso’s defense of his subordinate Fukuda has eroded public confidence in the ministry.
“When the victim feels like she has suffered sexual harassment, that is what it is. A denial from someone who made the remarks is nonsense,” Tahara said.
The weekly magazine report also raised questions about how TV Asahi handled the allegations, particularly with regards to why the reporter needed to approach the Shukan Shincho with the story at all.
The sexual harassment allegations have become yet another headache for the Abe administration, already shaken by multiple scandals that have sent public support ratings sinking.
The Finance Ministry has faced a barrage of criticism since admitting that it doctored documents related to the heavily discounted sale of a state-owned property to a school operator that had ties with first lady Akie Abe.