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Makoto Watanabe | Editor-in-Chief
・7 min read
In the latter half of 2014, The Asahi Shimbun was facing criticism for three major reasons: admitting to but not apologizing for reporting misinformation about Korean comfort women, pulling a column by Akira Ikegami, and publishing a controversial but factual article on the testimony of Fukushima No. 1 plant manager Masao Yoshida.
As explained in this series’ previous article, Asahi executives — including both the former and new executive editors — thought pulling Ikegami’s column was the most serious of these issues.
And yet, no one was held accountable for it. By contrast, Asahi President Tadakazu Kimura declared at the press conference announcing the Yoshida article’s retraction that “those involved would be strictly punished.”
Had the article on the nuclear accident been used as a scapegoat to redirect blame from the aborted Ikegami column?
With this question in mind, I began investigating the issue alongside like-minded colleagues. And as we did, we found a string of missteps surrounding the column as the Asahi’s management bent to the wishes of President Kimura.
Column headline: “The Asahi should sincerely apologize for its mistakes”
In fact, the Asahi had asked Ikegami to write about the paper’s inspection of its past comfort women coverage, the results of which it published in early August 2014. Although the Asahi originally hoped to include Ikegami’s contribution alongside the results, his schedule wouldn’t allow it. So the new plan was for Ikegami to write about the inspection in his monthly column.
The op-ed section received Ikegami’s draft by email on the afternoon of Aug. 27.
The column’s message: The Asahi Shimbun should apologize for the mistakes in its past comfort women coverage.
Following the inspection, the Asahi had retracted articles based on false claims made by a man named Seiji Yoshida. However, the paper had not apologized for publishing misinformation.
Ikegami’s column was given the headline “The Asahi should sincerely apologize for its mistakes” and made into galley proofs, which were delivered to the senior editors’ office on the fifth floor. The proofs were then encased in envelopes and delivered to the paper’s executives by the Editorial Division’s assistant general manager.
“I’ll have to step down if we run this”
President Kimura received a copy too.
The president doesn’t usually check articles. However, those related to the inspection of the Asahi’s comfort women coverage passed through the paper’s executives as a form of crisis management. All relevant articles were checked by Executive Editor Nobuyuki Sugiura, Public Affairs Director Hisashi Yoshizono, and President’s Office Director Ken’ichi Fukuchi in addition to Kimura and other executives.
The Asahi’s move to inspect its past coverage had been triggered by rumblings about the possibility of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration reviewing Japan’s 1993 formal apology regarding Korean comfort women. The Asahi’s leadership feared the paper being made an example of; President Kimura might even be summoned to testify before the Diet.
Sugiura and a few others went to tell Kimura about Ikegami’s column.
“I’ll have to step down if we run this,” the president exploded after reading the draft.
Members of the Editorial Division, including General Editor Tsutomu Watanabe and General Manager Hayami Ichikawa, discussed what to do.
They decided to change the headline from “The Asahi should sincerely apologize for its mistakes” to “Has the correction come too late?” Sugiura went back to negotiate with Kimura, but the president didn’t give an inch.
“Corporate governance just collapsed”
The team handling the column resigned themselves to doing things Kimura’s way. They would ask Ikegami to revise.
The op-ed section deputy editor left a message on Ikegami’s cell, saying that they would like to meet with him as soon as possible.
The columnist agreed to meet on the evening of Aug. 28 during a 15-minute break in the taping of a TV program he was taking part in. General Editor Watanabe, op-ed section Editor Yuichi Ichimura, and a deputy editor went to go discuss the column.
“We can’t publish it as is,” said the Asahi group. “Could you tone down the part about the paper’s lack of an apology? The Asahi is being attacked right now. From a crisis management perspective, we just can’t publish it like this.”
“I might consider changing some slight wording, but not the fundamental message,” Ikegami replied. “It’s up to the Asahi whether or not to publish the column; I won’t complain either way. That said, I began writing for the Asahi because I was told I would have the freedom to say what I wish. I consider the trust between us broken, and I do not plan to contribute further.”
Back at the office, Watanabe told Sugiura that they had a responsibility to publish Ikegami’s column as is. But Kimura still maintained that running the column would be the end for him as president, so Sugiura refused to give it the green light.
By that time, the column had been laid out in the Aug. 29 morning edition proof. But it was hurriedly removed, as per “the president’s order.”
The proof carrying Ikegami’s column was even put through a shredder, seemingly in an attempt to destroy evidence of what had happened.
But two weekly magazines, Shukan Shincho and Shukan Bunshun, caught wind that Ikegami’s column had been pulled. On Sept. 2, Shukan Bunshun broke the story on its website. The decision was criticized even within the Asahi, with reporters denouncing it on Twitter and desk editors mobbing the senior editors’ office.
“Corporate governance just collapsed,” remembered one editorial manager.
President Kimura feigned ignorance
That’s the story of the unpublished Ikegami column.
But the Asahi gave a different version of events at its Sept. 11 press conference, held nine days after Shukan Bunshun revealed that the column had been pulled. Although the press conference was held to announce the retraction of the Fukushima article, there were many questions about Ikegami’s column too.
In response, Sugiura claimed it had been his decision not to publish, and Kimura said he had only offered his general impression of the draft.
“We heard that President Kimura was the one who decided to pull the column,” a Shukan Bunshun reporter pressed.
“It is absolutely not true that I gave such instructions,” Kimura answered. “I don’t know anything about this, including the subsequent negotiations [with Ikegami]. I do remember saying that I found [the column] rather harsh, but that’s all.”
“So Sugiura acted based on what he assumed you wanted?” the Shukan Bunshun reporter asked.
Sugiura moved to receive the microphone from Kimura to respond. But Kimura didn’t notice and continued speaking.
“I don’t believe that was the case,” he said.
Sugiura took the microphone: “It was my decision.”
Third-party committee: “Pulling the column was effectively the president’s decision”
The third-party committee responsible for inspecting the Asahi’s past comfort women coverage was the first to reveal the lie from the press conference.
The committee was comprised of: former Nagoya High Court Chief Justice Hideki Nakagome (chair), foreign affairs commentator Yukio Okamoto, International University of Japan President Shinichi Kitaoka, journalist Soichiro Tahara, University of Tsukuba Professor Emeritus Sumio Hatano, University of Tokyo Professor Kaori Hayashi, and nonfiction writer Masayasu Hosaka.
Its conclusions about Ikegami’s column were as follows.
“The Asahi Shimbun explained that it was Sugiura who decided not to publish the column and that President Kimura only offered his general impression of Ikegami’s draft.”
“However, when the Editorial Division, including Executive Editor Sugiura, received the draft from Ikegami on Aug. 27, they planned to publish it as is. President Kimura expressed his disapproval, and because the Editorial Division couldn’t act against the president, it decided not to run the article. Therefore, the committee recognizes that the decision was effectively made by President Kimura.”
Confession, three years later
What’s more, after retiring as president, Kimura himself confessed the truth in the February 2018 issue of monthly magazine Bungei Shunju.
Kimura’s article was given the headline “Former Asahi president’s first confession on the two Yoshida misreports,” referring to Fukushima No. 1 plant manager Masao Yoshida and Seiji Yoshida from the comfort women articles.
Kimura explained his reason for coming clean: “I kept thinking, to use a grandiose expression, that it was my responsibility to history to leave behind an accurate record of what happened and of my decisions as president. I retired three years ago. Enough time has passed for me to go on the record.”
“The Asahi’s executives all agreed on the tone of our article announcing the inspection results, yet Ikegami was saying that the whole article was meaningless just because it lacked an apology,” Kimura said, recalling his reaction to reading Ikegami’s draft. “I do remember saying quite sharply that I, as president, would have to take responsibility and step down if publishing the column cost us readers’ trust.”
Kimura himself owned up to saying “I’ll have to step down” and that his tone had been “quite sharp” — a stark contrast with his claim at the press conference to have only offered his general impression.
Ultimately, the Asahi received the most backlash for pulling Ikegami’s column, and the one to make that decision had been Kimura.
I think the Fukushima article was used as a scapegoat to deflect criticism from the president and the paper’s more serious offense. And it only becomes clearer if we examine the events leading up to the article’s retraction.
… To be continued.
(Originally published in Japanese on May 8, 2019)