Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets (3): “Pulling Ikegami’s column was the biggest problem”

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Makoto Watanabe | Editor-in-Chief

・6 min read

Why did The Asahi Shimbun retract its article revealing Fukushima No. 1 plant manager Masao Yoshida’s account of the nuclear disaster?

In 2014, the year the retraction took place, the paper was facing a self-described “series of problems” — a phrase that hints at the real reason for the retraction. Here are the problems in question.

1. In early August, the Asahi published the results of an inspection into the accuracy of its past coverage of “comfort women” (*1). The paper announced its decision to retract articles published in the 1980s and early 1990s containing falsehoods by a man named Seiji Yoshida, who claimed to have “hunted down 200 young Korean women on Jeju Island.” However, the Asahi did not apologize for having published misinformation.

2. In the beginning of September, Asahi columnist Akira Ikegami submitted a draft column about the above matter, stating that the paper’s “inspection and correction of its comfort women coverage came too late.” However, the Asahi did not run Ikegami’s column.

3. On Sept. 11, the Asahi retracted its article about Masao Yoshida’s testimony concerning the Fukushima No.1 nuclear accident.

That August, the Asahi was taking heat for not apologizing when it admitted that part of its comfort women coverage had been erroneous. Pulling Ikegami’s column fanned the flames. When I heard that Asahi President Tadakazu Kimura would hold a press conference on Sept. 11, I assumed it was to apologize for the Asahi’s handling of its comfort women articles and for not publishing Ikegami’s column.

But instead, Kimura announced that the paper was retracting its article on the Fukushima disaster. His statement that “those involved will be punished” was only in reference to the team that had reported on plant manager Yoshida’s testimony. 

This wasn’t right. And I wasn’t the only one who knew it. 

When the president isn’t around

At 2 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2014, about 300 Asahi employees packed into the reception room on the 15th floor of the paper’s headquarters in Tsukiji, Tokyo. They were waiting to hear an explanation of the paper’s recent troubles from the Asahi’s executives. 

I was among them, to ask about the senseless retraction of the Fukushima article.

Although President Kimura did not attend, the following executives were present. 

From the Editorial Division: former Executive Editor Nobuyuki Sugiura, new Executive Editor Yoichi Nishimura, former General Manager Hayami Ichikawa, former General Editor Tsutomu Watanabe.

From the Sales and Administration divisions: Director in charge of sales Shinya Iida, President’s Office Director Ken’ichi Fukuchi.

Out of all the executives in attendance, only Sugiura had also attended the press conference announcing the retraction of the Fukushima article. He was the first to speak. 

“At the Sept. 11 press conference in which the president retracted and apologized for the article on Yoshida’s testimony, I was dismissed from my post as executive editor,” Sugiura said. 

“But I feel that the greatest damage to The Asahi Shimbun’s name was done by pulling Ikegami’s column at the beginning of September. Although I was dismissed because of the Yoshida article, I still feel responsible for [not publishing] Ikegami’s column most of all.”

I was shocked to hear Sugiura say that the most serious problem had been pulling the column. But Kimura had not held anyone accountable for it. Dismissing Sugiura and “strictly punishing” those involved was only in response to the article on Fukushima plant manager Yoshida’s testimony. 

“So his true feelings come out when the president isn’t around,” I thought.

Pulling Ikegami’s column led to a significant decline in sales

“Why do you think pulling Ikegami’s column was a bigger problem than the article about Yoshida’s testimony?” I asked Sugiura.

“I think pulling the column severely damaged The Asahi Shimbun’s liberality and commitment to publishing diverse opinions, which I see as the most valuable aspects of the paper,” he answered. 

“Even though you, as executive editor, thought so, why was the press conference about the Yoshida article?” I followed.

Sugiura only replied, “I don’t know.”

I put my question to the other executives: “Sugiura believes pulling Ikegami’s column was the most serious problem. I’d like to ask the rest of you which you think was most serious: the handling of the comfort women coverage, not publishing Ikegami’s column, or the Yoshida article. And please give your reason.”

Sales Director Iida: “The results of the inspection into the Asahi’s comfort women coverage didn’t cause a significant decline in sales. More than the Yoshida article, it was pulling Ikegami’s column that caused a sudden drop, and ads were cancelled as well. […] Sales fell because people saw the Asahi as too proud to publish Ikegami’s criticism. […] Although at first I thought the problem with the Yoshida article was only one of expression, the Asahi retracted the article — and that’s how the public will remember it, including the president holding a press conference to do so.”

Executive Editor Nishimura: “I think the effects of not publishing Ikegami’s column are overwhelmingly the most significant. Publishing a wide range of opinions was the Asahi’s strength, so I think it’s a huge problem that we have harmed people’s confidence in our commitment to doing so. That’s all I can say.”

President’s Office Director Fukuchi: “At the very least, with regard to the Yoshida testimony, I think it was unavoidable to remove Sugiura from his post when such a big article was retracted.”

General Manager Ichikawa: “The immediate reason for Sugiura’s dismissal was the Yoshida testimony article. However, I think the Ikegami problem was also a large factor.”

General Editor Watanabe: “I can’t assign importance at this stage.”

“I first heard about my dismissal at the press conference” 

Four of the six executives in attendance, including both the former and new executive editors, said pulling the Ikegami column was the most serious of the three problems. 

I asked them all again: “Why was discipline doled out only for the Yoshida article, not for the incident deemed a bigger problem? Who made that decision?” 

But Sugiura replied, “I first heard of my dismissal from the president at the press conference,” and Iida said, “The president has the right to replace the executive editor.” The others were unable to give me a straight answer.

Useless. My patience ran out.

“Go get the president if you need his help answering,” I said. “What’s the point of this meeting if the bosses only say ‘I don’t know’?”

There was a smattering of applause from among the 300 employees in the room, but most remained silent. In the following days, concerned colleagues advised me not to talk back to management if I wanted to stay out of trouble.

But despite their warnings, I still wanted to understand why the article about the Fukushima disaster had been pinned with all the blame, even though most executives thought that pulling Ikegami’s column had been the worse offense.

Together with a few like-minded colleagues, I decided to investigate.

… To be continued.

Footnote

*1: “Comfort women” is a euphemism for women and girls forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military before and during World War II. Quotation marks have been omitted in subsequent uses for readability. 

(Originally published in Japanese May 5, 2019)

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