#MeToo in Japan? Sex Scandal Roils Japanese Government
The beleaguered administration of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces another scandal after the top bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry resigned on Apr. 18 for the sexual harassment allegations made by female journalists in a magazine article published a week prior.
After the #MeToo movement went viral in the United States in late October 2017 in response to allegations of decades of sexual misconduct against American Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, a cascade of accusations levied against powerful figures in the fields of entertainment, print and televised media, journalism, and politics led to numerous investigations and the resignations, demotions, or firings of notable individuals accused of carrying out sexual harassment or assault, sometimes over extended periods of time.
While the #MeToo movement, with its associated “Weinstein effect,” has spread across the globe since then, the ramifications of the movement in East Asia have been comparatively more difficult to spot owing to censorship, entrenched gender roles, outdated and unsympathetic legal systems, and backlash against the movement.
On April 12th, weekly magazine Shukan Shincho published an article detailing the conversations between Administrative Vice Minister Jun’ichi Fukuda — the top career bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry — and a female reporter at a bar in which Fukuda repeatedly asked to touch the reporter’s breasts and kiss her.
The article also stated that other female journalists had been sexually harassed by Fukuda, with the Vice Minister asking to kiss them and take them to a hotel in separate but repeated incidents, before quoting Fukuda as denying all allegations of sexual misconduct.
The following day, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso told legislators in a session of the National Diet that he had warned Fukuda “to act with a sense of propriety, given the current climate.”
However, as Aso felt Fukuda “was sufficiently remorseful,” Aso stated that he did not intend to investigate nor punish Fukuda over the allegations. With regards to Fukuda’s denial of any wrongdoing, Aso merely remarked: “if the story is true, [Fukuda] is out.”
While opposition parties in the Diet called for Fukuda to be sacked over the matter, the Vice Minister reiterated his denial of all accusations made in the Shincho article on April 16th and vowed to sue the magazine publisher for defamation. In a rare move on the same day, the Finance Ministry announced that it would contract an independent lawyer to investigate the allegations and urged any reporters who were harassed by Fukuda to contact the independent lawyer in order for the Ministry to “respond in a responsible manner” and “not cause problems for those who cooperate.”
However, on April 18, Aso announced Fukuda would be resigning to “clear his name.” Fukuda told reporters that he “thought it would be difficult to fulfill my job responsibility with the situation after the reports and offered my resignation” while continuing to deny any misconduct.
Japanese broadcaster TV Asahi sent a formal complaint letter to the Finance Ministry on April 19, alleging that one of its reporters was harassed by Fukuda and called for an investigation. While Aso, who was in Washington for a Group of 20 meeting, stated that the Ministry “must accept” the “formal complaint statement” and would have a separate official deal with the investigation, the Finance Minister commented that his “only thought was that [the letter] would have been easier to read if [TV Asahi] had used a bigger font.”
Opposition parties began to boycott sittings of the National Diet on April 20 to protest the government’s handling of the scandal; the main opposition parties later widened the reasons for their protest to include other scandals plaguing Prime Minister Abe’s administration, making Diet deliberations empty of major opposition legislators for the first time since May 2005.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe officially accepted Fukuda’s resignation on April 24 while opposition legislators called for Aso to also resign to take responsibility for appointing Fukuda to the post of Administrative Vice Minister. While Aso — whose Finance Ministry is also embroiled in alleged cronyism scandals — restated that he has no intention to resign, the Finance Ministry acknowledged on April 27 that Fukuda had sexually harassed a female reporter and a monetary penalty would be levied on Fukuda’s retirement benefits.
The resignation of Jun’ichi Fukuda makes him the highest profile departure in the budding #MeToo movement in Japan. As more allegations surface against a widening range of powerful personalities — including pop star Tatsuya Yamaguchi of the band Tokio, erotic photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, and Education Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi — Prime Minister Abe faces an increasingly arduous task of addressing the situation surrounding Fukuda and Aso’s scandal-ridden Finance Ministry while Japanese society as a whole must face the harsh reality of the treatment of women in Japan, especially in the workplace, and decide on proper and conscionable remedies “with all deliberate speed.”