Photo/IllutrationAdministrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda leaves the Finance Ministry in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district on April 16. (Kazuhiro Nagashima)

Legal experts denounced the Finance Ministry’s investigation tactic of asking female journalists to come forward if they have been sexually harassed by the ministry’s top bureaucrat.

“This is just a performance by the ministry,” said lawyer Yumi Itakura. “This sort of method could be regarded as a threat toward reporters, who might feel hesitant to cooperate.”

The request came after the ministry released the results of its investigation on April 16 into allegations printed in the weekly Shukan Shincho magazine that Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda sexually harassed a female reporter at a bar, such as asking to touch her breasts and to start an affair.

Fukuda denied the allegations and has threatened to file a defamation lawsuit.

The ministry distributed a letter to media organizations, asking if any of their reporters had been sexually harassed by Fukuda in the same manner described in the magazine.

Apparently looking for a pattern of such behavior, the ministry said victims of Fukuda should contact the office of an attorney who is involved in the ministry’s investigation.

“If no one raises their hand, I wonder if the ministry will conclude that the sexual harassment didn’t happen,” Itakura said.

The ministry’s letter said it is difficult to ascertain the facts by only hearing Fukuda’s side of the story. Shukan Shincho is protecting the identity of the accuser.

The memo said the ministry will deal responsibly with the matter and will not put any journalist who comes forward at a disadvantage.

Hideo Yamada, an attorney familiar with sexual harassment issues, said the ministry may have had no choice but to find new witnesses because the magazine will not reveal its sources.

“When a person denies sexual harassment allegations, it is difficult to certify the facts,” he said.

However, Yamada voiced doubts about the ministry’s request.

“There may be women who are reluctant to come forward. There are pros and cons in this investigation method,” he said.

Kaori Hayashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school who specializes in journalism, said the ministry’s request could affect the media’s rules of protecting their sources.

“Talking about being victimized by sexual harassment requires courage,” she said. “Furthermore, for reporters, discussing such incidents could lead to disclosure of their sources and their means of communication. I don’t think reporters could talk about such important things to a lawyer appointed by the ministry.”

Hayashi said the ministry should first ask its employees if they have seen or heard about Fukuda behaving in a manner reported in the magazine.

According to the magazine, Fukuda sexually harassed the reporter during an interview about falsified ministry documents related to the dodgy sale of state-owned land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

(This article was written by Shimpei Doi and Hikari Maruyama)