The top bureaucrat in Japan’s finance ministry has been accused of sexually harassing several female reporters as a fresh scandal hit the administration of prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Junichi Fukuda, who holds the post of administrative vice-minister, vehemently denied the allegations made by Shukan Shincho. He threatened to sue the weekly news magazine.
The harassment allegations pile more pressure on a prime minister beset by two nepotism scandals, a cover-up at the finance ministry and falling opinion poll ratings. Some members of his party are calling on Mr Abe to quit this year.
It is a rare “#MeToo” case in Japan, where relatively few women have come forward to allege sexual harassment by high-profile men, compared with a flood of cases in Europe and the US. Japanese women fear blame and stigma if they make accusations.
Shincho released a tape that allegedly records Mr Fukuda asking to touch a female reporter’s breasts. It alleged similar cases involving other reporters but did not name any victims.
In a statement issued by the finance ministry, Mr Fukuda said he had no such interactions with female reporters. “The recording sounds like a fairly busy restaurant but I have no recollection of eating in such a restaurant with a female reporter,” he said.
“Given this tabloid reporting is libellous and at odds with the facts, I am preparing to sue [the publisher] Shinchosha.”
Mr Fukuda said it was not clear from the recording who he was speaking to or the context of the conversation. He said he sometimes went to clubs with hostesses and engaged in “wordplay” but was not aware of saying anything to make a female reporter uncomfortable.
The Ministry of Finance said it had hired an external law firm to conduct an independent investigation. It asked female reporters covering the ministry to contact the lawyers in confidence.
The allegations have been widely reported by Japanese print and television media in light of the other scandals affecting the finance ministry and the prime minister.
Public trust in the ministry, regarded as the elite of Japan’s bureaucracy, is at rock bottom after revelations that it falsified documents and incited a nationalist school operator to lie in a scandal over the cut-price sale of public land.
The scandals have undermined Mr Abe’s government agenda. His flagship labour market reform is unlikely to pass in the current parliamentary session and his long-time priority, constitutional reform, is also at risk.
A weekend poll by Nippon Television found the prime minister’s approval rating had dropped to a record low of 26.7 per cent. His disapproval rate was a record high 53.4 per cent.
A separate poll by the Asahi newspaper put his approval at 31 per cent and disapproval at 52 per cent. Members of Mr Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic party are growing restive over the weakness in the polls.
In a significant blow to Mr Abe, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi criticised him over the weekend, and said it “might be difficult” for him to serve another term as Liberal Democratic party leader. The prime minister must seek re-election as head of his party in September.
Mr Abe will travel to the US on Tuesday for a meeting with president Donald Trump. His supporters hope the visit will turn attention back to foreign policy and the threat from North Korea, regarded as strong issues for the prime minister.