The top bureaucrat at Japan's Finance Ministry on Monday flatly denied a recent magazine report alleging that he sexually harassed female reporters, saying he is preparing to file a libel suit against the magazine's publisher.
Meanwhile, editors of the Shukan Shincho magazine expressed confidence in the accuracy of its report on Junichi Fukuda, vice finance minister, saying the article was "all based on facts."
The weekly magazine reported last week 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 Finance Ministry, Fukuda dismissed the allegations during an interview with ministry officials, saying, "I have never made remarks that would make a female reporter feel uncomfortable and that can be taken as sexual harassment."
Fukuda was also quoted as saying 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."
Following the release of Fukuda's statement by the ministry, the magazine's editors said the publication will clarify its view on Fukuda's argument in its next issue due out on Thursday.
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."
Kiyomi Tsujimoto of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan demanded the top Finance Ministry bureaucrat be replaced when she met with Hiroshi Moriyama, the Diet affairs chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
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 he did not plan to investigate the matter or reprimand the bureaucrat.
Aso said Monday that in a case of alleged sexual harassment, "One must listen to arguments from both parties," expressing the view that an interview must be held with the reporters alleging sexual harassment, not only with Fukuda, in order to judge whether harassment took place.
The ministry is unlikely to reach a final conclusion regarding the sexual harassment claims unless one of the alleged victims comes forward and agrees to be interviewed by the lawyer, sources said.