A protest against Finance Minister Taro Aso's comment on sexual harassment is held in front of the Finance Ministry in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward on May 7. (Takuya Isayama)

Finance Minister Aso Taro’s remark that sexual harassment is not a crime sparked protests around Japan demanding his resignation as well as a proposal from a Cabinet member to discuss criminalizing such behavior.

Aso was already under pressure to step down over allegations that the top bureaucrat in his ministry sexually harassed a female TV reporter during an interview.

But Aso has exacerbated matters for himself by giving his legal views on the issue.

“There is no criminal charge for sexual harassment,” he said on May 4 in the Philippines. “It’s not the same as murder or sexual assault.”

About 100 people, including lawyers and professors, gathered in front of the Finance Ministry in Tokyo on May 7 to demand Aso reflect on his words and resign from the Cabinet.

“I think the finance minister still has not acknowledged that sexual harassment occurred,” said Masumi Minagawa, an associate professor of sociology at Chuo Gakuin University and a member of the organizing committee for the rally.

Junichi Fukuda resigned as administrative vice finance minister after the sexual harassment allegations ran in a magazine and an audio recording of the suspected incident was released.

Although Fukuda has denied the allegations, the Finance Ministry announced disciplinary measures against him on April 27.

In repeatedly defending Fukuda, Aso has given people the impression that he is downplaying the seriousness of sexual harassment.

“His remarks make me fully aware that he thinks sexual harassment is not a big deal,” said Sumire Hamada, a member of the Asia Japan Women’s Resource Center, which deals with gender issues and supports victims of sexual assault.

Near JR Sapporo Station in Hokkaido, around 20 protesters chanted, “We can’t accept a government where such a Cabinet member is working.”

Rallies against Aso were also held in Osaka, Kyoto and other cities, with many protesters holding signs featuring the #MeToo hashtag.

After hearing Aso’s comment, internal affairs minister Seiko Noda, who is also state minister in charge of women’s empowerment, said May 7 that debate should be held on whether to impose legal penalties for sexual harassment to deter such behavior and prevent a recurrence.

“Aso said there is no charge for sexual harassment,” she told reporters. “Unwanted touching can lead to obscenity and other charges. But if there is no charge for (sexual harassing) remarks, we should hold a discussion about that.”

Noda, on a satellite TV program, expressed her intention to set up an expert panel in the Cabinet Office to consider criminalizing sexual harassment.

She said she heard about the damage caused by sexual harassment from victims in the private sector, including media organizations.

Aso on May 8 refused to back down, telling reporters after a Cabinet meeting that sexual harassment is not a crime under the Penal Code.

He also addressed the criticism that has erupted over his remark, saying, “I just stated the fact that there is no such crime as sexual harassment.”

Asked if he thinks that sexual harassment is not a problem, Aso shot back, “Of course I don’t think that way.”