By Tetsushi Kajimoto and Chang-Ran Kim
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's top finance bureaucrat denied on Monday a weekly magazine's allegation that he had sexually harassed female reporters and vowed to sue its publisher for defamation, his ministry said in a statement.
The weekly Shincho magazine said in an issue published last Thursday that Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda went drinking with a female reporter recently at a bar near his house and asked to touch her breasts and kiss her. It had quoted Fukuda as denying the allegations.
Japan has had few reported "#MeToo" cases about sexual harassment involving public figures. In Japan, victims are often reluctant to speak out for fear of being blamed. The identity of the female reporter has not been disclosed.
A day after the report, the tabloid released an audio recording of what it said was Fukuda making the alleged sexual advance.
The Finance Ministry, in its statement, quoted Fukuda as saying: "I do at times go out for meals with both male and female reporters after working hours, but I have never had the kind of exchange with any female reporter that was reported in the magazine (or that was contained in the audio file)."
The ministry quoted Fukuda as saying he was preparing to sue the publisher, Shinchosha. He apologized to Finance Minister Taro Aso and other members of the ministry for "causing trouble", and vowed to continue carrying out his duties "with a sense of urgency".
Shinchosha told Reuters it would publish its response to the ministry statement in its next edition, out on Thursday.
"The article is totally based on facts," it said.
The #MeToo global movement has exposed men accused of sexual assault and harassment in fields including entertainment, politics and business. Dozens of prominent men have quit or been fired from high-profile posts, and police have opened investigations into some accusations of sex assault.
The ministry said in its statement it would continue to investigate the allegations surrounding Fukuda through an external law firm, given that the initial internal fact-finding had been conducted by Fukuda's subordinate.
It called on female reporters to come forward and contact the law firm if they were willing to cooperate with the investigation.
Some women said they hoped the case would lead to more open discussion of sexual harassment.
"Japanese have a tendency to put up with things," said 20-year-old theater worker Yuka Sekiguchi.
"I don't think we are in an environment where we can even speak up about being sexually harassed. I really hope that one day we will become a society in which we can speak up with courage about being sexually harassed."
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made his "Womenomics" programs to mobilize women in the workforce part of his policies to boost growth, big gender gaps persist at companies and in politics.
The controversy is another headache for Finance Minister Aso and Abe, whose ratings have been hit by scandals over suspected cronyism and cover-ups. A steady trickle of new allegations about the scandals has raised doubts about how long Abe can stay in power.
The daily Sankei newspaper reported on Monday that Abe had decided that Fukuda must be fired. It did not cite a source. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the ministry's personnel issues were up to the minister to decide.
(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim and Tetsushi Kajimoto, additional reporting by Sam Nussey and Hyun Oh; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)