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Finance Ministry's myopic response to sex harassment accusations backfires

Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda answers questions from reporters at the ministry in Tokyo on April 18, 2018, after announcing his intention to resign. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The Finance Ministry's inappropriate response to sexual harassment allegations against its top bureaucrat has backfired, as the general public is increasingly critical of such cases.

The problem has also highlighted ministry officials' immature understanding of sexual harassment.

Weekly magazine Shukan Shincho broke a story on April 12 about allegations that Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda sexually harassed female reporters. On the same day, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso told a House of Councillors Financial Affairs Committee that he had verbally warned Fukuda over the matter and that the ministry would not conduct any further probe.

"He (Fukuda) has expressed sufficient remorse, so we have no intention of questioning him further," Aso said, adding that Fukuda had promised to be careful not to cause any misunderstandings. It would turn out that the finance minister was drastically over-optimistic about how the scandal would develop.

The following day, Shukan Shincho released audio data online believed to be a recording of Fukuda's voice, saying things like, "Can I touch your breasts?" The Finance Ministry hurriedly questioned Fukuda over the following weekend in response to growing calls for his dismissal from within the ruling coalition. Fukuda categorically denied the allegations saying, "I've never had chats like this with female reporters."

The person doing the questioning was Koji Yano, who as Fukuda's subordinate had little choice but to accept his boss' denial despite the release of the audio recording. A high-ranking Finance Ministry official lamented, "If the administrative vice minister had even partially admitted to the allegations, we could've responded better."

On Monday, April 16, the ministry released the outcome of the Fukuda interviews and asked female reporters concerned to cooperate with a legal firm retained to advise the ministry and tapped to conduct a probe.

"Any probe by a government organization would be dismissed as untrustworthy. Female lawyers have joined the fact-finding team to prevent any disadvantage (to female reporters)," Aso explained.

However, the move has sparked criticism from various quarters, including Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda, who raised questions about the investigation method.

Still, the Finance Ministry remained intransigent on the sexual harassment allegations.

During a House of Representatives Financial Affairs Committee session on April 18, Yano said of a female reporter mentioned in the magazine's sexual harassment piece, "The magazine quotes her saying, 'I felt extremely annoyed by his action.' If so, is it so painful for her to come forward to lawyers and complain about the matter while remaining anonymous?" He went on to say, "Questions have been raised over whether the harassment actually occurred in the first place."

His remarks also sparked criticism. A member of a group of attorneys demanding that the ministry retract its request that the female reporters concerned come forward and cooperate in the probe said, "He doesn't understand the victims' pain."

Lawyer Sakura Kamitani pointed out that the ministry's awareness of sexual harassment is severely lacking.

"The ministry should've launched a probe immediately after the magazine broke the news," she said. "When the ministry asked the reporters concerned for cooperation in an investigation, officials may have thought that they wouldn't come forward considering their relations with the ministry as a news source," she said. "The ministry's awareness of sexual harassment as an organization is being called into question."

(Japanese original by Wataru Okubo and Daisuke Oka, Business News Department)

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