Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda has announced his intention to resign over sexual harassment allegations, only shortly after the Finance Ministry was rocked by the heavily discounted sale of a state-owned land lot to school operator Moritomo Gakuen and its doctoring of official documents on the deal.
There is no sign that confusion within this powerful government organization that oversees taxation and the state budget will be settled in the foreseeable future. Finance Minister Taro Aso and other politicians should be taking the initiative in settling the matter, but their responses have fallen one step behind. It appears that both politicians and bureaucrats are desperate to save their own skin and are reluctant to assume responsibility over the confusion.
TV Asahi recently announced that one of its female employees was sexually harassed by Fukuda, upholding a weekly magazine's report on the allegations. Nevertheless, Fukuda maintained his actions do not constitute sexual harassment and repeated his suggestion that he is resigning because news reports on the allegations against him have created an uproar and he cannot concentrate on his job.
The Finance Ministry asked victims to come forward and cooperate in its in-house probe into the allegations, adding fuel to the public's criticism of the ministry. Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, appears to be still covering for Fukuda.
Opposition parties are demanding that Aso step down from the Cabinet, and have refused to attend Diet deliberations unless their demand is met. The political world as a whole has therefore been thrown into chaos.
Aso may be considering stepping down after the ministry completes an in-house probe into the document falsification case. If so, he might be aiming to retain his influence within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) even after leaving his Cabinet posts.
However, the public has lost confidence in the Finance Ministry following the discovery that the ministry asked Moritomo Gakuen to collude and lie about the land deal, among other problems. Serious questions remain as to how far the probe into the document doctoring case under Aso's leadership can convince the general public.
The ministry has not even been able to pick the successor of Nobuhisa Sagawa, who has resigned as chief of the National Tax Agency in connection with the Moritomo case. The ministry needs to carry out a drastic personnel reshuffle and regain the public's trust to rise above the quagmire.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had also wanted Fukuda to resign at an early stage, but he was slow in responding to the matter, raising speculations that the prime minister may have been showing consideration to Aso in an effort to win his cooperation in his bid to seek a third term as LDP president in the leadership election this coming autumn.
Prime Minister Abe also apparently feared being held responsible for the confusion within the ministry if Aso steps down. His stance to prioritize such political motives appears to have weakened his leadership over his administration.
"As the head of the executive branch, I'd like to take responsibility to get to the bottom of each and every single problem and clear up problems," the prime minister has said. The prime minister should be aware that these problems are rooted in both the political world and the bureaucracy.