As the Finance Ministry asked female reporters who were reportedly sexually harassed by its top bureaucrat to come forward, cabinet ministers on Tuesday questioned the ministry's handling of the probe.
Other lawmakers also took issue with the ministry's approach to the sexual harassment allegations against Junichi Fukuda, vice finance minister who has denied them and plans to sue a weekly magazine publisher that broke the story last week for defamation.
"It's a high hurdle for victims," said Internal Affairs minister Seiko Noda, who is also in charge of female empowerment. "The reality is that such sexual harassment victims cannot even share their experience with family members."
Noda, one of the few female ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, asked Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman, and Finance Minister Taro Aso to deal with the issue carefully.
The turmoil came as multiple scandals have undermined public support for the Cabinet.
"I will fulfill my duties as head of the government to get to the bottom of each one of the issues to regain the confidence of the people," Abe told reporters.
The Shukan Shincho reported last week that Fukuda sexually harassed female reporters while out drinking. It also released an audio clip of the top bureaucrat allegedly making comments such as "Can I give you a hug?" and "Can I touch your breasts?"
Fukuda denied the allegations during an interview with the Finance Ministry, saying that he has never made remarks that would "make a female reporter feel uncomfortable and that could be taken as sexual harassment."
To ensure objectivity, the ministry has turned to lawyers to look into the matter independently and asked female reporters who think they have been sexually harassed by Fukuda to come forward and contact the lawyers.
But other ministers also joined Noda and expressed concern, saying that protection should be given to female reporters if they have been sexually harassed.
"What's important is not to make it too much of a burden on the part of women," said Masaji Matsuyama, a state minister in charge of promoting active participation of all citizens.
The allegations against Fukuda came to light at a time when the Finance Ministry has been looking into why the doctoring took place of documents pertaining to a controversial state land sale to a school operator with ties to the prime minister's wife Akie.
Aso defended the ministry's move to seek cooperation from female reporters and ask them to contact the lawyers. "We can't do anything unless they come forward," he told reporters after a cabinet meeting.
Since the sexual harassment allegations were reported, ruling and opposition party lawmakers have been stepping up calls for Fukuda to resign.
"It's out of touch with the feelings of the public," said Seiko Hashimoto, an upper house lawmaker from the Liberal Democratic Party.