Senior Japanese finance official quits over alleged sexual misconduct

TOKYO (AP) — A senior Japanese finance ministry official resigned Wednesday over sexual misconduct allegations in the latest embarrassment for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s embattled government, already hit by cronyism and other scandals.

Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda denied the allegations but submitted his resignation, citing difficulties carrying out his duties because of the escalating criticism and attention.

Last week, the Weekly Shincho magazine published sexually suggestive remarks that Fukuda allegedly made to an unidentified female reporter earlier this year. The magazine released parts of what it said was an audio recording of Fukuda’s remarks, and alleged that he routinely made similar comments to female reporters in private conversations.

Fukuda told reporters that he couldn’t tell if the voice was his. “But at least I have no recollection of making an outrageous conversation like that,” he added. “I am not aware of making any remark that could be taken as sexual harassment.”

In the alleged conversation, the man described as Fukuda says “I want to kiss you” and repeatedly asks questions such as “Can I touch your breasts?” and “Can I tie your hands behind your back?”

Fukuda acknowledged having regular one-on-one meetings with members of the finance ministry press club — most of whom work for major Japanese newspapers and broadcast companies — but denied making such remarks. He did not rule out having slightly sexual conversations, or “word play,” with bar hostesses after work.

He said he planned to file a defamation suit against the magazine, which is expected to publish a follow-up story on Thursday. The magazine has said it stands by its reporting.

Fukuda said he regretted causing trouble for his already embattled ministry, which has also been hit by a cronyism scandal linked to Abe’s wife. Abe himself faces another scandal linked to a friend’s opening of a veterinary college, along with accusations of mishandling of official documents at the finance ministry and several other ministries.

The finance ministry has launched an investigation into the allegations against Fukuda. It is urging the alleged victim to come forward, saying it needs to hear from both sides to determine whether there was sexual misconduct. Women’s rights groups and lawmakers have accused the investigators of lacking sensitivity and privacy awareness.

The mounting scandals have called into question Abe’s chances of securing a third term as party leader this September, which seemed assured earlier this year, and could even force him to step down before the leadership race.