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Finance Ministry calls for women allegedly sexually harassed by bureaucrat to come forward

Junichi Fukuda (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- After top Finance Ministry bureaucrat Junichi Fukuda flatly denied allegations of sexual harassment on April 16, the ministry took the unusual stance of calling for female reporters who may have been harassed by the vice minister to come forward to cooperate with the investigation.

If no one ends up coming forward, however, there is a chance the Finance Ministry investigation may never get off the ground. The accusations further send an already scandal-rocked ministry into an even more precarious position.

"From the audio clip (released by weekly magazine Shukan Shincho), you can't tell if the other person is even a female reporter," Fukuda was quoted as pointing out during a ministry interview about the allegations reported by the magazine made public on April 16. "I enjoy occasionally going to restaurants or bars with female staff and engaging in playful banter with them. However, I have never made a comment to a female reporter that could be considered sexual harassment." All of his statements during the investigation completely denied any misconduct.

As the scandal comes amid growing distrust in the Ministry of Finance over the doctoring of documents related to the heavily discounted sale of government land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which had ties to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie Abe, Fukuda expressed regret over the situation. However, he was clear that he intends to keep his current position, and that he would resist any moves made to push for his resignation over the accusations.

The Finance Ministry will continue investigations into the claims using consulting attorneys, and pay the fees itself. At a House of Councillors Audit Committee meeting on April 16, Minister of Finance Taro Aso explained his reasoning for calling on female reporters to come forward.

"If the female reporters from the weekly magazine story exist, we would like their cooperation (in coming forward). Otherwise, we cannot hear the opinions of both sides on the matter," he said.

However, the request is also garnering criticism. At the same committee meeting, Social Democratic Party lawmaker Mizuho Fukushima said the request for cooperation "can be taken as intimidation (toward the women who were harassed)." She also called into question the neutrality and treatment of the women during the investigation, saying, "Will they really contact a legal office hired by the Finance Ministry?"

"While Mr. Fukuda continues to fight against the claims, the psychological hurdle for a woman to come forward and cooperate with the investigation is high," pointed out lawyer Juri Yukita, who belongs to a law office specializing in women's issues and is an expert on sexual harassment issues. "Even if no one comes forward, it doesn't necessarily mean that Fukuda is cleared of suspicion."

(Japanese original by Daisuke Oka and Naoko Furuyashiki, Business News Department)

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