Finance Minister Taro Aso on Tuesday repeated a controversial statement that appeared to downplay an incident of alleged sexual harassment by his ministry’s top bureaucrat, just a day after his earlier comments sparked protest demonstrations in a number of cities across the nation.
“There is no such thing as a sexual harassment charge,” the 77-year-old former prime minister said at a regular news conference — the same remark he made Friday during a trip to Manila.
The statement, which appeared to make light of claims that then-Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda had repeatedly made sexually suggestive comments to a TV reporter, has drawn sharp reactions from women’s rights activists, with some calling it misogynistic and permissive of sexual harassment. Asked by reporters about such public criticism, Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, said he had “merely stated a fact” while adding he has no intention of tolerating sexual harassment. Perpetrators of sexual harassment can be charged with sexual assault, rape or libel in Japan.
Seiko Noda, minister in charge of female empowerment, said Tuesday that she plans to compile legal measures to tackle sexual harassment during the ongoing Diet session.
Noda, 57, who also serves as internal affairs minister, indicated Monday she would consider introducing penalties for sexual harassment.
She also said Aso belongs to a generation that has not learned about sexual harassment and that he has “a totally different perception” to that of her generation.
Following Aso’s initial comments, protesters including many women’s rights groups took to the streets Monday. Some lined the sidewalk in front of the Finance Ministry building in central Tokyo, while others held demonstrations in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Sapporo.
Fukuda stepped down in late April after a weekly magazine reported he had made sexually suggestive comments to female reporters. The magazine, Shukan Shincho, later released an audio clip allegedly of Fukuda asking one of the reporters, “Can I give you a hug?” and “Can I touch your breasts?”
TV Asahi later said that the victim was one of its employees, adding that she had handed the audio recording to the magazine.
The former top bureaucrat has denied the allegations, although the ministry has acknowledged that he sexually harassed the female reporter and reduced his retirement benefits. Aso himself has faced growing calls from opposition lawmakers to resign for having chosen Fukuda for the position. Aso had said the ministry needs to hear both sides, but the way it sought to gather facts has also been criticized as lacking neutrality and sensitivity.
The sexual harassment allegations have become yet another headache for the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which was already shaken by multiple scandals that have led to declining public support.
Aso, a close ally of Abe, has often made controversial comments.
In August, Aso came under fire for comments that seemed to defend Adolf Hitler’s motives for the genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany.
“Hitler, who killed millions of people, was no good even if his motives were right,” he said. Aso later said he had meant to give an example of a bad politician but also retracted the remark.