The Yomiuri Shimbun The Finance Ministry will launch an investigation led by outside lawyers into allegations that Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda verbally harassed female journalists with sexually suggestive comments, the ministry announced Monday.
During an internal ministry hearing, the 58-year-old top ministry bureaucrat denied the allegations reported by a weekly magazine, and expressed his intention to keep his current position, according to the ministry.
Criticism of Fukuda within the government and ruling bloc has nevertheless escalated, and there is a growing view that he will eventually need to resign.
The internal hearing was conducted by Deputy Vice Minister Koji Yano. However, the ministry opted to take the rare step of entrusting the probe to outside lawyers, as Yano holds a position subordinate to Fukuda, the ministry said.
Audio of the alleged exchange of words between Fukuda and a female journalist has already been released. However, according to the ministry, Fukuda said during the internal probe, “I never engaged in such an exchange with female journalists.”
He added, “I have no idea whatsoever who the person I allegedly talked to is, or whether the person really is a female journalist.”
Fukuda said he is proceeding with preparations to file a lawsuit against Shinchosha Publishing Co., which reported the alleged harassment, on the grounds that the report is contrary to fact and therefore defamatory.
Regarding whether he should resign, the vice minister said he intended to keep his current position. “While humbly reflecting [on my deeds], I want to execute my duties with a sense of seriousness,” he said.
The ministry is calling on the news organizations that employ the alleged harassment victims to cooperate with the outside lawyers conducting the probe.
As the ministry confronts issues concerning the sale of state-owned land to private school operator Moritomo Gakuen, there is a growing view that the sexual harassment allegations will make it difficult for Fukuda to continue leading the ministry’s handling of the matter.
The Shukan Shincho weekly magazine released April 12 reported that Fukuda sexually harassed female journalists by hugging them and making sexually suggestive remarks.
The publishing company on Friday released online part of the audio of the remarks allegedly made by the vice minister.
Following these reports, Finance Minister Taro Aso said at a press conference Friday after the Cabinet meeting, “If [the reports] turn out to be true, it will be ‘over [for him]’ due to sexual harassment.”
However, Aso also repeated his previously expressed position that he would not take disciplinary action against Fukuda.
Calls for Fukuda’s resignation within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito are escalating.
Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi said during an address in Aomori on Sunday: “A high-ranking public servant allegedly spoke in a manner that infringes on and denigrates women’s rights. We should properly correct [the situation] as needed.”