On Tuesday, top Finance Ministry bureaucrat Junichi Fukuda formally resigned over allegations of having sexually harassed female journalists. The government’s response has drawn widespread criticism, exposing the country’s woeful attitude toward tackling sexual harassment.
Fukuda, 58, who served as administrative vice finance minister discussed his intention to step down last week. But after an intense media frenzy, he abruptly came to the decision to resign, citing “increased difficulty in carrying out vice minister duties” on top of the Moritomo Gakuen-related scandals plaguing the Finance Ministry.
An Asahi TV news reporter broke her silence earlier this month by airing a secretly recorded audio conversation on the homepage of local weekly magazine, Shukan Shincho. Based on the recording Fukuda made sexually suggestive comments, asking the reporter “Can I give you a hug?”, “Can I touch your breasts?”, and “Can I give you a kiss?”
Fukuda has denied the accusations and insisted it was hard to distinguish whether the voice on the recording was his own. In a last ditch appeal, Fukuda spoke against sexual harassment, saying, “We must make it easier for women to work. Sexual harassment is out of the question. If this environment isn’t established I want it to be discussed in parliament.”
The Asahi journalist spoke out after being confronted by repeated sexual comments from Fukuda during face-to-face interviews starting a year and a half ago. During the middle of a meeting over dinner and drinks, the journalist says after sexual comments began again she resorted to recording the meeting for self-protection.
Finance Minister and Vice Prime Minister Taro Aso has defended Fukuda, saying that “it was deeply regrettable he is stepping down over sexual harassment allegations.” The opposition has called on Aso to resign and to take responsibility for appointing Fukuda to the high-ranking position.
The Minister for Women’s Empowerment Seiko Noda, poster child for Abe’s “womenomics,” acknowledged the difficulty for victims to stand up against the perpetrators of sexual misconduct. However, Aso chose to act on advice to publicly request victims to come forward against Fukuda, warning that details of the case could not be verified otherwise.
A Social Democratic Party representative condemned Aso’s approach, labeling it as insensitive toward victims. The Finance Ministry’s press club went as far as issuing a letter of protest criticizing the ministry’s advice for victims to contact its lawyer if they had been sexually assaulted by Fukuda.
The opposition has also called out the government’s acceptance of Fukuda’s resignation initially without a probe or disciplinary action as an implicit approval of sexual harassment.
On Tuesday TV Asahi Corporation President Gengo Sunami apologized for the lack of appropriate action after sexual harassment was repeatedly reported. He said it was “deeply regrettable” that the female victim turned to publishing audio anonymously with a weekly news magazine after a female boss brushed off the incident as being “too difficult to report” without being able to show “secondary damage.”
The latest revelations shone a harsh light on Japan’s ingrained corporate culture of overlooking sexual harassment. It comes as no surprise that loose attitudes toward sexual harassment are rife in public office. At a press conference on April 12, Aso allegedly suggested replacing female reporters with male reporters if sexual harassment was unpleasant. But Aso vehemently denied that claim when reported by Mainichi Shimbun.
On Sunday, an LDP lawmaker and former education minister criticized the sexual harassment whistle blowing as a crime, referring to the conversation being secretly recorded. He retracted the comments on Monday, saying he had made an inappropriate choice of expression.
In a hierarchical work-based society like Japan, toeing the line is the norm. However, public discussions are setting the record straight, allowing victims to vent about sexual harassment on online forums. Meanwhile, the incident has also opened a floodgate of female journalists revealing sexual harassment in the workplace. Currently, six media organizations are conducting internal investigations into sexual assault stemming from Fukuda.
Noda announced plans last Friday to hold a hearing for women in the media to discuss sexual harassment.