TOKYO >> A senior Japanese finance ministry official resigned today after being accused of sexual misconduct in the latest embarrassment for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s embattled government, already hit by cronyism and other scandals.
Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda denied the allegations but submitted his resignation, citing difficulties carrying out his duties because of escalating criticism and attention.
Last week, the Weekly Shincho magazine published sexually suggestive remarks that Fukuda allegedly made to an unidentified female reporter earlier this year. The magazine released parts of what it said was an audio recording of Fukuda’s remarks, and alleged that he routinely made similar comments to female reporters in private conversations.
The finance ministry is urging the alleged victim to come forward so it can hear from both sides in its investigation to determine whether there was sexual misconduct. Women’s rights groups and lawmakers have accused the investigators of lacking sensitivity and privacy awareness, and demanded that Fukuda’s boss, Finance Minister Taro Aso, also step down.
Aso has said the voice sounded like Fukuda’s, and the comments might once have passed unquestioned but are now not acceptable. But he added that Fukuda could not be held accountable for sexual misconduct until the remarks’ context and the alleged victim are known.
“Because no victim has come out, there is only a wrongdoer who has been put on the spot and it’s a one-sided story,” Aso said. “Fukuda could be the victim instead of a wrongdoer.”
Late today, TV Asahi announced that the woman was its reporter and had recorded the conversation as evidence. It said she provided the recording to the magazine after her own boss said it would be difficult to report the incident on the TV network. It did not release the reporter’s name.
A TV Asahi official told a news conference that it regretted how the reporter’s complaint had been handled and said the network plans to lodge a protest with the finance ministry over sexual harassment.
Fukuda told reporters that he couldn’t tell if the voice in the recording was his.
“But at least I have no recollection of making an outrageous conversation like that,” he added. “I am not aware of making any remark that could be taken as sexual harassment.”
In the alleged conversation, the man described as Fukuda says “I want to kiss you” and repeatedly asks questions such as “Can I touch your breasts?” and “Can I tie your hands behind your back?”
Fukuda acknowledged having regular one-on-one meetings with members of the finance ministry press club — most of whom work for major Japanese newspapers and broadcast companies — but denied making such remarks. He did not rule out having slightly sexual conversations, or “word play,” with bar hostesses after work.
He said he planned to file a defamation suit against the magazine, which is expected to publish a follow-up story on Thursday. The magazine has said it stands by its reporting.
Fukuda said he regretted causing trouble for his already embattled ministry, which has also been hit by a cronyism scandal linked to Abe’s wife. Another senior finance official earlier stepped down and a third ministry official committed suicide over document tampering related to the questionable purchase of state land by a ultra-nationalistic school that Abe’s wife briefly served as honorary principal.
Abe himself faces another scandal involving alleged favorable treatment given to a friend who opened a veterinary college, and accusations of mishandling of documents at the finance ministry and several other ministries.
The mounting scandals have called into question Abe’s chances of securing a third term as party leader this September, which seemed assured earlier this year, and could even force him to step down before the leadership race.
Separately, a governor in northern Japan resigned Wednesday over a magazine report that he had paid money and given gifts to women whom he met on internet dating sites.
Ryuichi Yoneyama, governor of Niigata, acknowledged the money and gifts but said he was in relationships with the women and was not buying sex. The 50-year-old lawyer and doctor is single.