Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets (8): “Comfort women” coverage and a conservative administration

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Makoto Watanabe | Editor-in-Chief

・3 min read

To address the increasing attacks on the paper, Asahi Shimbun President Tadakazu Kimura brought managing director and representative of the Asahi’s Osaka head office Shuzo Mochida to Tokyo as a crisis manager on Sept. 3, 2014. Mochida immediately met with the four editorial managers in charge of the article on Fukushima No. 1 plant manager Masao Yoshida’s testimony. Three days later, Mochida visited Kimura’s apartment in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

“It seems the Yoshida article could add to our troubles,” he told the president.

Kimura was shocked. When the article had been published in May that year, he had happily called it a first-class scoop and even phoned Executive Editor Nobuyuki Sugiura about submitting it for the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association award.

Mochida then brought up the Asahi’s comfort women coverage. “The comfort women articles have already become a problem,” he told Kimura. “Combined [with the Yoshida article], the situation could become serious enough to force your resignation.”

The Asahi’s comfort women coverage could determine whether or not the president kept his job.

Let sleeping dogs lie?

The Asahi’s past comfort women coverage had been hanging over the paper for much of 2014.

It had published articles based on statements by the late Seiji Yoshida, who claimed to have “hunted down” 200 young women on South Korea’s Jeju Island. In total, the Asahi had published 16 articles based on Yoshida’s claims, beginning with one in the paper’s Sept. 2, 1982 Osaka morning edition.

The accuracy of Yoshida’s testimony was called into question in the ensuing years. However, the Asahi left its articles alone, without confirming their veracity.

In 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued an official government statement expressing “heartfelt apology and remorse” to former comfort women. When the Democratic Party administration was replaced by the conservative second Shinzo Abe administration in 2012, anxiety spread within the Asahi. The paper’s management worried that Abe might revise the Kono Statement and that the Asahi’s president might be summoned to testify before the Diet about the articles based on Seiji Yoshida’s false claims. In 2014, the Abe administration announced that it would be examining the comfort women issue.

Kimura decided to take the initiative and verify the Asahi’s comfort women coverage.

His predecessor, Kotaro Akiyama, warned Kimura that it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. Others opposed his decision too. However, Kimura decided to go ahead with the verification, thinking it critical for the paper’s future.

Members of the verification team interviewed about 40 people living on Jeju Island. They also spoke with Yoshida’s son. And they found that Yoshida’s claims had, in fact, been fabricated.

So, what to do next?

The current Asahi president was against apologizing

Was it enough just to correct the erroneous articles? Did the Asahi need to apologize?

General Editor Tsutomu Watanabe, who managed the Editorial Division, felt the Asahi should apologize. He gave clear instructions for the article announcing the inspection results to include one.

But at a meeting of executives and editorial managers held on July 16, 2014, Kimura made it clear he thought the Asahi should not apologize. He said an apology would cause readers to doubt the veracity of the paper’s other stories about comfort women. What if it made them think there had been no comfort women at all?

Other executives felt similarly. Later, Kimura would privately say that the Asahi’s current president, Masataka Watanabe, had come out most strongly against apologizing.

In the end, Kimura’s opinion prevailed.

On Aug. 5, the Asahi published an article announcing the results of its inspection and the retraction of the 16 articles based on Yoshida’s lies. But the paper didn’t apologize.

Next time, I’ll explain what happened as a result.

… To be continued.

(Originally published in Japanese on Nov. 14, 2019)

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