It has been almost a month since the Asahi Shimbun printed a long, two-part retraction of its reporting in the 1980s and ’90s on the “forced mobilization” of so-called comfort women during World War II based on the published confessions of a man named Seiji Yoshida.

The paper concluded that Yoshida had lied about kidnapping Korean girls and women on Jeju Island and forcing them into sexual servitude at the behest of the Japanese military. Other media had also related Yoshida’s story at the time but eventually became suspicious. By the mid-1990s, they considered him unreliable at best and a “scoundrel” at worst, which is how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once described him. Because Asahi’s coverage of the comfort women issue has always been tied to Yoshida’s testimony, the paper perhaps felt reluctant to disavow it, but the evidence against Yoshida’s version turned out to be overwhelming, and Asahi finally did what it had to do.

It wasn’t enough for the paper’s rivals. Many media continue to complain that the retraction was insufficient, that Asahi must express remorse appropriate to the gravity of its sins, including an apology to the international community. It must also punish the people responsible for the reporting. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has picked up this sentiment and says it may grill the paper’s editors in the Diet.

Following their summer break, the two big weeklies — Bunshun and Shincho — published features excoriating Asahi. Shincho even placed an ad in the Asahi for its Aug. 28 issue that prominently featured headlines accusing the paper of being incapable of humility in the face of its crimes. Bunshun, which has always been the paper’s principal bete noire, tried to do something similar but Asahi rejected the ad.

The tabloid Yukan Fuji ran an article calling for a boycott of the Asahi following a column by Naoya Kawamura that appeared in the Aug. 23 Sankei Shimbun, which belongs to the same media company. Kawamura wrote that Asahi’s mistakes were born of its arrogance toward the public, which now recognizes how its coverage of the comfort women issue has not only damaged Japan’s reputation in the world, but poisoned its relationship with South Korea. He said the paper must “erase” this misinformed view.

Kawamura’s piece goes beyond castigation of reckless journalism, suggesting that the whole sex slave controversy is a fabrication based on Yoshida’s testimony. The column implicitly questions the veracity and morality of the government-sanctioned Kono Statement of 1993, which admitted that the military forced women from various countries, including Japan, to sexually service Japanese soldiers on the front lines.

However, the weekly magazine Kinyobi has said that the Kono Statement did not resource Yoshida or his coverage, because by then his statements had already been discounted by almost everyone except the Asahi. At issue was the confusion of the term teishintai, or women drafted to aid in the war effort, with ianfu (comfort women). Asahi previously made it sound as if the two terms described the same people, which wasn’t the case. However, as Kinyobi pointed out, that doesn’t mean women weren’t coerced into working in the “comfort stations,” only that members of the teishintai weren’t sex workers.

The position of the Sankei and its ilk is that there were comfort women but they were professional prostitutes working for contracted commercial enterprises, which ignores the fact that Japan and its territories were effectively under martial law at the time. The United Nations, as well as the governments of the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and the European Union, have formally condemned the forced mobilization of comfort women, and, according to Kinyobi, none relied on Yoshida’s testimony to reach that conclusion, since there was plenty of other credible evidence.

But maybe the harsh reaction isn’t just about Japan’s reputation or resentment of the term “sex slaves.” Maybe it’s more about the Asahi itself.

In an even more stinging rebuke of Asahi’s perceived “so what?” attitude, Tokyo Sports conjectures that the only reason the paper finally came clean was because its previous refusal to do so had harmed its circulation: Asahi’s seemingly knee-jerk liberal stance, which the tabloid says aims to make readers “hate Japan,” was affecting its bottom line. Thus the retraction is a cynical move.

An article in a recent issue of Flash takes this idea further — but in a different direction. Circulation for all newspapers is dropping, and according to former Mainichi Shimbun executive Takashi Kawachi, this reality has led them to reinforce editorial stances on certain hot-button issues, like politicians’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine and collective self-defense. The right-of-center Yomiuri Shimbun is famously the biggest paper in the world because it distributes almost 10 million copies a day, but that is simply the number it prints. This has always been a contentious point in the publishing world, since it affects advertising rates. Flash reports that the number of delivery outlets, which are responsible for local distribution and soliciting new subscribers, has been decreasing by an average of 435 a year for the past three years for all newspapers nationwide, so it is becoming increasingly difficult for any newspaper to maintain the illusion of a large readership.

In fact, the only Japanese newspaper whose circulation has actually increased since Abe took power for a second time is Sankei, which has always despised the Asahi, and now they have even more of a reason. This isn’t to say the majority of Japanese are as conservative in their outlook, only that people who are conservative in their outlook are likely to read Sankei, just as liberals are likely to read the nominally left-leaning Asahi. So other publications are thinking, “Maybe ceaselessly bashing the Asahi will boost our numbers, too.” It can’t hurt to try.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.