Finance Minister Taro Aso said the bureaucrat, Junichi Fukuda (in the frame above), would be fired if the harassment was proved, but the ministry said it was not planning a probe

Tokyo: A growing sexual harassment scandal hit Japan’s finance ministry on Friday after a magazine released what it said was audio of a senior bureaucrat sexually harassing a woman journalist.

The Shukan Shincho magazine reported earlier this week that the ministry’s top bureaucrat had sexually harassed several women journalists, but Finance Minister Taro Aso initially said he had no plans to investigate the report or punish the official, who he said was “sufficiently remorseful”.

Today, he said the bureaucrat, Junichi Fukuda, would be fired if the harassment was proved, but the ministry said it was not planning a probe. Hours later, the magazine released what it said was audio of Fukuda with a female journalist at a bar.

“I’ll tie up your hands. Can I touch your breasts?” a male voice on the recording says.

“Shall we have an affair once the budget is approved?” The reporter, who has not been named, cannot be heard on the recording, and the identity of the male voice could not be independently verified.

The magazine said several other female reporters reported being sexually harassed by Fukuda, who asked to kiss them and take them to a hotel. The row comes as the government faces twin cronyism scandals that have dragged down Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s normally high approval ratings and led to opposition calls for the premier and his finance minister to resign.

Fukuda has denied the allegations and yesterday Aso said he had warned the bureaucrat about his conduct, but did not plan to investigate further or punish him.

“I told him to act with a sense of propriety, given the current climate,” Aso told a parliament session, in an apparent reference to the scrutiny the cabinet is under.

“As I felt he was sufficiently remorseful, I don’t intend to investigate further,” he added.

Today, asked again about the case before the recording was released, Aso said, “If the story is true, he is out.” But he added: “I am not thinking about punishing him at this point.” A finance ministry spokesman told AFP before the audio was released that no investigation was planned.

Opinion polls last month showed Abe’s support dropping to the lowest level since his re-election in October amid two cronyism scandals, one of which involves the alteration of documents by the finance ministry.

Abe has denied wrongdoing in both scandals.

Japan has one of the worst records in the world for female political representation. The country has deeply entrenched gender attitudes.

Just 2.8% of rape victims go to the police, according to a 2017 government survey, and the #MeToo movement that has raised awareness of sexual harassment worldwide has had a relatively muted reception in Japan.