Finance Minister Taro Aso still seems to have trouble understanding what sexual harassment really means. One has to be simply appalled by his absurd remarks.
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A week after the Ministry of Finance belatedly acknowledged that its Vice Minister Junichi Fukuda sexually harassed a TV Asahi reporter and punished him, Aso said the following at a May 4 press conference: "There is no such thing as criminal sexual harassment." He also said that what Mr. Fukuda did was "different from murder or indecent assault," showing his intention to defend his former subordinate, whose resignation was approved by the Cabinet on April 24.
Why does Aso dare to make such remarks after he, as the ministry's top official, approved Mr. Fukuda's punishment? Why did the ministry terminate its investigation into the sexual harassment case despite TV Asahi's request to continue the probe? It simply does not make sense.
No one is asking whether sexual harassment constitutes a criminal offense. Indeed, sexual harassment can be construed as coercion and thus a violation of the Penal Code, or an infringement on local governmental ordinances, which provide for fines or even imprisonment for convicted violators. Some countries even define sexual harassment as a clear criminal offence. This question of criminality of sexual harassment, however, is off the mark when it comes to the Finance Ministry case.
The Penal Code is not the sole component of social norms. Ethics, manners and other factors are also part of the framework. If an education minister was to say that there is no such thing as a criminal bullying and defends a bully, is the remark acceptable?
Sexual harassment is a serious human rights violation. Politicians must strive for its elimination, as they should fight bullying. Aso's remarks are, in any case, completely out of line.
We also must point out Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's lack of action such as reprimanding Aso while the finance minister occasionally intimidates reporters and repeats assertions such as the one on sexual harassment.
Is the premier afraid of facing criticism himself if he lets Aso resign? Does Abe want to secure the support of Aso as the prime minister seeks a third term as the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a party leadership race scheduled for this autumn? It appears that only political calculations dominate the scene.
Inside the LDP, the atmosphere is business as usual. "Aso is making his usual gaffes," said one party source. Others expect Aso to resign eventually to take responsibility for the Finance Ministry's document forgery linked to a favoritism scandal involving school operator Moritomo Gakuen. Very few in the LDP are taking the sexual harassment case seriously.
If the government lets the situation slide, people will find no reason to question the view that the prime minister and the LDP are lenient on sexual harassment offenders while calling for women's empowerment.