By Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's finance minister admonished his top bureaucrat on Thursday after a magazine reported the official had sexually harassed several female journalists, but he stopped short of imposing any punishment.
The issue could become another headache for Finance Minister Taro Aso and for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose ratings have been eroded because of several 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 weekly Shincho reported in its latest edition published on 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.
The magazine quoted Fukuda as denying the allegation.
Reuters was not able to independently confirm the report and attempts by Reuters to reach Fukuda at his office were not successful.
The magazine related a similar incident with a female reporter at a restaurant in the past and said Fukuda had been known for making sexually suggestive comments to women journalists.
The reporter in the most recent incident said she had gone to meet him because he was an important news source, the magazine said.
The magazine did not identify the reporter nor several other women mentioned in its report.
Aso, whose ministry is under fire for its involvement in suspected cover-ups over a murky sale of state-owned land to a school operator with ties to Abe's wife, told a parliamentary panel that Fukuda had spoken to him about the matter.
Fukuda said he met many people in a private capacity and it was not possible to verify every interaction but that he would be careful not to "be misunderstood" from now on, Aso said.
"I admonished him that given the situation the ministry is in now, he should not be complacent," Aso said, adding he believed Fukuda had "reflected" on the matter.
Japan has had few reported "#MeToo" cases about sexual harassment involving public figures, apparently in part because victims are often reluctant to speak out for fear of being blamed.
While Abe has made his "Womenomics" programmes to mobilise women in the workforce part of his policies to boost growth, big gender gaps persist at companies and in politics.
"This symbolises the Japanese society of today, which is far from gender equality," Twitter user "Blue Rabbit" tweeted.
"Women are just seen as sex objects. If this is true, it is unforgivable."
Asked about Abe's women-friendly policies and whether the reported harassment contradicted them, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference: "We are working to create a society where this kind of thing doesn't happen."
The suspected cronyism scandals have sparked opposition calls for Abe to resign and are clouding his chances of a third term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader, and hence premier, in a September vote.
Victory in the September party poll would set Abe, who took office in 2012 pledging to reboot the economy and bolster defence, on track to become Japan's longest-serving premier.
(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Tetsushi Kajimoto; Editing by Linda Sieg, Robert Birsel)