Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.08.11

Erroneous "Comfort Women" Articles Admission: Why 32 Years Later?

JBpress on August 8, 2014

The Asahi Shimbun, a leading daily newspaper in Japan, on August 5 admitted and apologized for some factual errors in articles it has published since 1982 on the "comfort women" issue. The conservatives in Tokyo are furious and the liberals embarrassed. The silent majority of Japanese remain calm, but wonder why such a confession was made at this moment?

According to the Asahi, its articles about the wartime comfort women were initially based on statements by Seiji Yoshida that he himself had "rounded up" Korean women against their will. The Asahi has published 16 articles on this issue since 1982, including the one in which he claimed to have "hunted out" 200 young Korean women on Jeju Island.

Although the statements are believed to have triggered a subsequent series of anti-Japanese campaigns by South Korea as well as a report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the Asahi revealed on August 5 that "it could not obtain corroborative evidence to back up Yoshida's statements" and deemed that they were "false" and that it would therefore withdraw the articles.

The newspaper also argued that "little research on comfort women had been done in the early 1990s" when the issue of comfort women began to emerge as a political obstacle between Japan and South Korea, revealing, for example, that "female volunteer corps" at Japanese munitions factories and "comfort women" had been "mixed up."

The Asahi, however, emphasized that the facts about the issue were not intentionally distorted or fabricated. While some liberals hailed the daily's honesty and courage in admitting the past mistakes, the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) expressed serious concern.

The LDP's Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba said that, "The articles have affected regional peace and stability as well as our friendship with our neighbors and public sentiment. There may be a need for verification in the legislature. Unless we uncover the truth, we will not be able to build peace and friendship in the future."

The silent majority of Japanese are calm, neither furious nor supportive, but simply puzzled. Why did the influential liberal daily suddenly admit that some of the most controversial articles it had printed on the comfort women issue are not based on the facts? And in particular, why did it disclose this 32 years after the first in the series of articles was published?

The questions continue. Did the Asahi really verify the first article of 1982? If so, why could it not determine then that Yoshida's statements were false? If it could not verify them, why is the paper only NOW able to determine the truth? What if they had retracted the first few articles? The subsequent investigation into the comfort women issue might have been much less tumultuous and more objective.

A recent series of opinion polls by the conservative Fuji-Sankei media group show that more than 55% of respondents believe that the 1993 Kono statement, which includes an apology on the comfort women issue, should be modified. Another similar poll by Jiji Press in May also reveals that 40% are in favor of revising the Kono statement.

Don't get me wrong. This is not to claim that the Kono statement should be altered or that the comfort women issue did not happen. There is no doubt about this, no matter how it has been reported. The Kono statement said it all: "Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day, that severely injured the honor and dignity of many women."

The statement goes on to say that, "The Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women."

Having said that, the silent majority of Japanese still feel somehow betrayed, if not cheated. It is because they now know that they cannot deny the possibility that the Kono statement, the ultimate official expression of the genuine sentiment of the Japanese people, could have been a product of a series of newspaper articles with serious factual errors.

They are neither as furious as the conservatives nor as supportive as the liberals. They are frustrated not because the Asahi might have intentionally distorted or fabricated the stories, but because the factual errors in the articles could be used by opponents to challenge and undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the Kono statement. In this respect, Asahi Shimbun's responsibility should not be overlooked and should be subject to parliamentary verification.