Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.09.24

The Asahi President's Apology, At Last

JBpress on September 19, 2014

In a rare press conference on September 11, Tadakazu Kimura, the president of the Asahi Shimbun, withdrew another controversial article--this time on the Fukushima nuclear crisis of 2011--in front of many cameras, his fellow Japanese and foreign reporters based in Tokyo. The silent majority of Japanese now seriously wonder how responsible the Asahi is?

For those unfamiliar with the situation, on May 20, 2014 the Asahi published an article reporting that workers battling the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster had fled the site in violation of an order to stay put. The story, based on leaked testimony by the late manager of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, was proved to be both misleading and wrong.

In fact, the daily recently withdrew and apologized for other articles. The Asahi, once considered one of the most influential and prestigious daily newspapers in Japan, on August 5 admitted and apologized for factual errors in articles it published since 1982 on the "comfort women" issue.

As has already been described in this column, at that time the silent majority of Japanese were still calm and even tolerant vis-a-vis the Asahi, but were puzzled. Well over thirty years after the first in the series of articles was published, why did the influential liberal daily admit that some of the most controversial articles it printed on the comfort women issue were not based on the facts?

This time, however, the silent majority seems to be more critical and less tolerant. They now feel more betrayed and even cheated because the article the Asahi withdrew and apologized for last week was not one published in 1982 but had just been written in May. No wonder the credibility of Asahi is now being seriously questioned.

Recent polls are ominous for the Asahi Shimbun. For example, last week's Nippon TV opinion poll show that, when asked whether they appreciated the Asahi's correction and apology, only 6.4% said yes, while 23.3% said no. Almost two thirds said they appreciated the correction and apology, but thought they were "too late."

In the same poll, when asked whether Mr. Kimura's formal apology could help regain trust in the Asahi Shimbun, only 21.5% said yes, while more than 60% responded negatively. Although its president bowed deeply, repeatedly apologized and pledged to restore its credibility, it seems that it will be almost impossible for the Asahi to achieve that goal in the near future.

On the Asahi's misleading series of comfort women articles, recent surveys show that more than 70% of the respondents believe the paper's internal investigation into the articles was "not enough" and that the articles damaged the international reputation of Japan. In addition, 60% regard the Asahi's articles as having undermined Japan-South Korea bilateral relations.

What does this mean to Japanese domestic politics? There are various schools of thought on this question. Liberals seem to be divided. While some deplored the Asahi's serious mistakes and lost confidence in the paper, the majority seem to be downplaying the scandal and quietly insist that those factual errors will not change the fundamental nature of the comfort women issues.

The conservatives, on the other hand, feel almost victorious since the Asahi has been a real 'pain in the neck' for them. For some, this is even a second "Abe-Asahi War" in which the Asahi's reputation has been seriously damaged after Abe lost to the Asahi in their first War. In the previous war Abe was ultimately forced to resign as prime minister after a year of fierce battles that the Asahi had waged against him.

None of the above, however, hits the nail on the head. Mr. Kimura's honesty in admitting past mistakes did not restore the Asahi's credibility because, despite its denial, at least some Asahi reporters have likely distorted the stories, if not outright fabricated them. By the same token, the Asahi's factual errors will not lead to the revision of Japan's declared positions on history issues.

The silent majority of Japanese are neither as triumphant as the conservatives nor as apologetic as the liberals. They just seem disappointed that the Asahi Shimbun has joined the swelling ranks of companies that have betrayed the public's trust. The newspaper's recent scandals are not about professional journalism but about corporate bureaucracy. That is the reason why the Asahi's responsibility is enormous.