The top bureaucrat at Japan's Finance Ministry denied on Monday a recent magazine report alleging that he sexually harassed female reporters.
Junichi Fukuda, vice finance minister, is also preparing to file a suit against the magazine's publisher, saying that the report is not true and constitutes defamation, according to the Finance Ministry.
"I have never made remarks that would make a female reporter feel uncomfortable and that can be taken as sexual harassment," Fukuda was quoted as saying during an interview with ministry officials following the report by Shukan Shincho.
In its latest edition that went on sale on Thursday, the weekly magazine reported that Fukuda made sexually suggestive comments to female reporters while drinking. He denied the allegations when confronted by a reporter for the magazine, the article said.
On Friday, the magazine released on its website an audio clip it alleges to be a recording of Fukuda saying to a female reporter, "Can I give you a hug?" and "Can I touch your breasts?" in a place believed to be a restaurant or bar.
According to the ministry, Fukuda said during the interview he does "not recall having dined with a female reporter in a bustling place like the one in the audio clip."
The vice minister also pointed out that the recording gives no information about the alleged female reporter, including "whether the person is in fact a female reporter at all."
The ministry said that as the interview was conducted by Fukuda's subordinates, it has asked a lawyer to separately look into the matter in order to secure the objectivity of the investigation.
It also requested that media organizations belonging to the ministry's press club ask their female reporters whether they have been sexually harassed by the bureaucrat. If there are any such cases, the ministry wants the female reporters concerned to cooperate with the investigation by the lawyer, it said.
Ruling coalition and opposition lawmakers have called for Fukuda's resignation following the allegations. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, said, "It's a matter that should be dealt with by the finance minister."
The controversy comes at a time when the Finance Ministry is already facing a barrage of criticism over its discounted sale of state-owned property to a school operator with ties to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife and the doctoring of records pertaining to the controversial deal.
Finance Minister Taro Aso has said he told Fukuda to fulfill his duties with diligence at a time when the ministry needs to regain public trust, but did not plan to investigate the matter or reprimand the bureaucrat.