Rewriting the War, Japanese Right Attacks a Newspaper
By MARTIN FACKLERDEC. 2, 2014
Takashi Uemura, a former journalist, is under attack for his reporting on “comfort women.” Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
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SAPPORO, Japan — Takashi Uemura was 33 when he wrote the article that would make his career. Then an investigative reporter for The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest newspaper, he examined whether the Imperial Army had forced women to work in military brothels during World War II. His report, under the headline “Remembering Still Brings Tears,” was one of the first to tell the story of a former “comfort woman” from Korea.
Fast-forward a quarter century, and that article has made Mr. Uemura, now 56 and retired from journalism, a target of Japan’s political right. Tabloids brand him a traitor for disseminating “Korean lies” that they say were part of a smear campaign aimed at settling old scores with Japan. Threats of violence, Mr. Uemura says, have cost him one university teaching job and could soon rob him of a second. Ultranationalists have even gone after his children, posting Internet messages urging people to drive his teenage daughter to suicide.
The threats are part of a broad, vitriolic assault by the right-wing news media and politicians here on The Asahi, which has long been the newspaper that Japanese conservatives love to hate. The battle is also the most recent salvo in a long-raging dispute over Japan’s culpability for its wartime behavior that has flared under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-leaning government.
This latest campaign, however, has gone beyond anything postwar Japan has seen before, with nationalist politicians, including Mr. Abe himself, unleashing a torrent of abuse that has cowed one of the last strongholds of progressive political influence in Japan. It has also emboldened revisionists calling for a reconsideration of the government’s 1993 apology for the wartime coercion of women into prostitution.
“They are using intimidation as a way to deny history,” said Mr. Uemura, who spoke with a pleading urgency and came to an interview in this northern city with stacks of papers to defend himself. “They want to bully us into silence.”
“The War on The Asahi,” as commentators have called it, began in August when the newspaper bowed to public criticism and retracted at least a dozen articles published in the 1980s and early ’90s. Those articles cited a former soldier, Seiji Yoshida, who claimed to have helped abduct Korean women for the military brothels. Mr. Yoshida was discredited two decades ago, but the Japanese right pounced on The Asahi’s gesture and called for a boycott to drive the 135-year-old newspaper out of business.
Speaking to a parliamentary committee in October, Mr. Abe said The Asahi’s “mistaken reporting had caused many people injury, sorrow, pain and anger. It wounded Japan’s image.”
With elections this month, analysts say conservatives are trying to hobble the nation’s leading left-of-center newspaper. The Asahi has long supported greater atonement for Japan’s wartime militarism and has opposed Mr. Abe on other issues. But it is increasingly isolated as the nation’s liberal opposition remains in disarray after a crushing defeat at the polls two years ago.
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Mr. Abe and his political allies have also seized on The Asahi’s woes as a long-awaited chance to go after bigger game: the now internationally accepted view that the Japanese military coerced tens of thousands of Korean and other foreign women into sexual slavery during the war.
Most mainstream historians agree that the Imperial Army treated women in conquered territories as spoils of battle, rounding them up to work in a system of military-run brothels known as comfort stations that stretched from China to the South Pacific. Many were deceived with offers of jobs in factories and hospitals and then forced to provide sex for imperial soldiers in the comfort stations. In Southeast Asia, there is evidence that Japanese soldiers simply kidnapped women to work in the brothels.
Among the women who have come forward to say they were forced to have sex with soldiers are Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos, as well as Dutch women captured in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony.
There is little evidence that the Japanese military abducted or was directly involved in entrapping women in Korea, which had been a Japanese colony for decades when the war began, although the women and activists who support them say the women were often deceived and forced to work against their will.
The revisionists, however, have seized on the lack of evidence of abductions to deny that any women were held captive in sexual slavery and to argue that the comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes out to make good money.
For scholars of the comfort women issue, the surprise was not The Asahi’s conclusion that Mr. Yoshida had lied — the newspaper acknowledged in 1997 that it could not verify his account — but that it waited so long to issue a formal retraction. Employees at The Asahi said it finally acted because members of the Abe government had been using the articles to criticize its reporters, and it hoped to blunt the attacks by setting the record straight.
Instead, the move prompted a storm of denunciations and gave the revisionists a new opening to promote their version of history. They are also pressing a claim that has left foreign experts scratching their heads in disbelief: that The Asahi alone is to blame for persuading the world that the comfort women were victims of coercion.
Though dozens of women have come forward with testimony about their ordeals, the Japanese right contends it was The Asahi’s reporting that resulted in international condemnation of Japan, including a 2007 resolution by the United States House of Representatives calling on Japan to apologize for “one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century.”
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For conservatives, humbling The Asahi is also a way to advance their long-held agenda of erasing portrayals of Imperial Japan that they consider too negative and eventually overturning the 1993 apology to comfort women, analysts say. Many on the right have argued that Japan’s behavior was no worse than that of other World War II combatants, including the United States’ bombing of Japanese civilians.
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“The Asahi’s admission is a chance for the revisionist right to say: ‘See! We told you so!’ ” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Abe sees this as his chance to go after a historical issue that he believes has hurt Japan’s national honor.”
The Asahi’s conservative competitor, The Yomiuri Shimbun, the world’s highest-circulation newspaper, has capitalized on its rival’s troubles by distributing leaflets that highlight The Asahi’s mistakes in reporting on comfort women. Since August, The Asahi’s daily circulation has dropped by 230,797 to about seven million, according to the Japan Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Right-wing tabloids have gone further, singling out Mr. Uemura as a “fabricator of the comfort women” even though his article was not among those that The Asahi retracted.
Mr. Uemura said The Asahi had been too fearful to defend him, or even itself. In September, the newspaper’s top executives apologized on television and fired the chief editor.
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“Abe is using The Asahi’s problems to intimidate other media into self-censorship,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist who helped organize a petition to support Mr. Uemura. “This is a new form of McCarthyism.”
Hokusei Gakuen University, a small Christian college where Mr. Uemura lectures on local culture and history, said it was reviewing his contract because of bomb threats by ultranationalists. On a recent afternoon, some of Mr. Uemura’s supporters gathered to hear a sermon warning against repeating the mistakes of the dark years before the war, when the nation trampled dissent.
Mr. Uemura did not attend, explaining that he was now reluctant to appear in public. “This is the right’s way of threatening other journalists into silence,” he said. “They don’t want to suffer the same fate that I have.”
A version of this article appears in print on December 3, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Rewriting War, Japanese Right Goes on Attack. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe