It was a rare role reversal for the influential Asahi Shimbun — which is known for exposing wrongdoing in high places — when its president stood before cameras to bow, apologize and pledge to restore his organization’s credibility.
Tadakazu Kimura told more than 100 reporters packed into a second-floor room at Asahi headquarters in Tokyo that the newspaper was withdrawing a controversial article on the Fukushima nuclear crisis that it now said was erroneous. It was also apologizing for belatedly retracting decades-old articles on wartime sexual slavery that were based on an account later discovered to be fictitious.
The self-inflicted wounds to the 135-year-old liberal media flagship are casting doubt on whether it can regain credibility.
Its embarrassment coincides with a widespread muting of liberal views and an absence of strong political opposition to Japan’s government, and may also create a tailwind for conservatives such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who want to recast the nation’s wartime past in a less apologetic tone and loosen constraints imposed on its military by the postwar pacifist Constitution.
“From now on, the Asahi will have to be much more careful in taking an editorial line that is at odds with the right-wing, government line,” said Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University professor critical of Abe’s policies. “Abe and Co. will have a much freer hand in rewriting history.”
The Asahi told reporters in a statement that the newspaper wanted to continue to fulfill its journalistic responsibility in the same way as it has done to date, and repeated that it would place top priority on accuracy.
The Asahi holds a unique place among the country’s newspapers, which range from the liberal Asahi and moderate Mainichi to the conservative Yomiuri and Sankei, both of whose views often echo positions of the Abe administration.
The Asahi’s readers respect the paper for its exposés of corruption and opposition to the conservatives who have ruled Japan for most of the past six decades, said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus.
“Its estimated 8 million readers like it for much the same reasons liberal readers prefer the New York Times — it is a trusted and reliable voice willing to take on the powers that be,” Kingston said.
Equally, the newspaper is reviled by many on the right for purveying what they term a “masochistic” view of wartime history that they say dents national pride and fuels diplomatic feuds with neighbors China and South Korea.
“Asahi is responsible for all the unjust criticism spoken by China and South Korea toward Japan,” said Harue Sato, a spokeswoman for self-styled patriotic women’s group Soyokaze.
Conservatives also criticize the Asahi for its opposition to key policies espoused by the Abe government, such as a planned return to nuclear power after the March 2011 Fukushima disaster and his push for Japan’s military to play a bigger global role.
The Asahi’s retractions concerned two of the country’s most sensitive political issues — nuclear power and the legacy of past militarism, which still snarls ties with China and South Korea nearly 70 years after World War II.
Kimura’s news conference last week capped months of controversy over a May 20 Asahi article, based on leaked testimony by the late manager of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The paper said workers battling the March 2011 disaster had fled in violation of an order to stay put.
The Asahi had billed its story as a major scoop and rejected later charges from other media that it was wrong. The full transcript, released Thursday, showed the Asahi report had focused on selective comments by the manager and that it was possible he had been misunderstood in the chaos. The Asahi also said it had failed to confirm facts with the workers.
Blaming insufficient checks and preconceptions as to what had happened, the Asahi removed its top editor from his post and asked a panel of outside experts to examine its reporting.
A month earlier, the Asahi retracted articles published in the 1980s and 1990s and based on a Japanese man’s account — later discovered to be false — that described women on the Korean island of Jeju being forcibly taken to provide sex in brothels run by the Imperial Japanese Army.
Those retractions — decades after scholars first raised doubts about the man’s account and years after Asahi itself said it could not be confirmed — set off a firestorm of criticism.
The issue of “comfort women”, as those who work ed in the brothels are known, has become a flashpoint in the country’s ties with South Korea and a red-flag topic for Japan’s conservatives.
A landmark 1993 apology by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged the complicity of Japanese authorities in coercing women, many Korean, to work in the brothels.
But many conservatives, including Abe, say there is no proof of direct state involvement in kidnapping the women.
“The articles said that Japanese soldiers entered people’s homes as kidnappers, snatched away their children and made them comfort women,” Abe told NHK public TV on Sunday. “Isn’t what is now being demanded is (for the Asahi) to face the world and properly retract this?”
Those familiar with the Asahi’s internal debate said its executives appeared to have hoped that retraction of the articles, which had long left the paper vulnerable to criticism, would bolster their credibility in the debate on the broader issue of the nation’s responsibility for the comfort women system. The paper is now setting up a new panel of outside experts to examine its coverage of the comfort women issue.