Is the Asahi a scapegoat of nationalist media or victim of own missteps?

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

One of the nation’s leading newspapers has been in crisis mode of late — a situation that may bode ill for liberal journalism at a time when nationalism appears to be making public inroads.

The venerable Asahi Shimbun has been rocked by three scandals, first involving what the newspaper admitted are erroneous reports, drawing flak from readers in general, from weekly magazines and from two of Tokyo’s six major newspapers: the right-leaning rival Sankei Shimbun and the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun.

The critics claim the Asahi has damaged the honor of the Japanese people via its alleged erroneous articles over sensitive issues, most particularly over the wartime “comfort women” — females from Japanese-occupied areas who had to provide sex for the nation’s armed forces.

Condemnation of the Asahi abounds in cyberspace communities, including Twitter, Facebook and blogs, clouding the paper’s future in the digital age as it gropes to free itself from a pariah image.

Experts recently interviewed by The Japan Times have said the Asahi is to blame for the scandals and for the public anger, claiming the paper’s apologies came too late and its subsequent fact-checking attempts were far from sufficient.

But at the same time, the growing sense of nationalism manifesting itself in Japan, and the media outlets serving this mindset, have probably amplified people’s frustration against the Asahi, which prompted rival publications to attack it to boost their own sales, the experts said.

The Asahi admitted on Aug. 5 that it published 16 “erroneous” articles in the 1980s and ’90s that were based on claims by Seiji Yoshida, a man who said he was involved in the kidnapping of hundreds of Korean females on Jeju Island. The victims were forced to work at wartime military brothels, known euphemistically as “comfort stations.”

Historians now consider Yoshida’s accounts to be fabrications, basing their conclusion on the testimony of people from Jeju who say no such abductions took place.

The Asahi was rocked again over its refusal to carry a regular column by noted freelance journalist Akira Ikegami, who criticized the newspaper for failing to conduct a thorough investigation into why it took such a long time to correct the erroneous reports based on Yoshida’s account, even though a noted historian had raised questions on its credibility more than 20 years ago.

On Sept. 11, the Asahi retracted another story — a scoop that alleged workers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant fled at the peak of the 2011 meltdown crisis in defiance of orders by their supervisor to remain within the compound. The workers who stayed to try to contain the crisis drew praise from the Western media, who termed them the “Fukushima 50” for their bravery.

The Sankei, Yomiuri and weekly magazines claim the Asahi’s reporting on the comfort women and the Fukushima 50 damaged the dignity of the nation and want the paper to correct the wrong images of Japan it cast in the international community.

“The Asahi carried fact-checking articles (about the comfort women) on Aug. 5 and 6 , but they were half-baked and didn’t specifically explain why they made those errors,” said Takaaki Hattori, a professor of mass media studies at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

The Asahi didn’t extend a formal apology for the errors or explain the judgment calls made by individual reporters and editors in each stage of its news reporting, Hattori said, noting it is only natural that the paper came under fire from the public.

“It was like imploding,” he said. “I also feel (focusing on the Asahi’s misdeeds helped) fan the fire of nationalism, stoking further anti-South Korean and anti-China sentiment.”

For the media, the comfort women issue has been sensitive for years, with the left-leaning Asahi’s views conflicting with the right-leaning Sankei.

The Asahi’s intense coverage in the 1990s of the comfort women legacy was long considered representative of liberal reportage. But the paper, as a leading opinion maker, also drew the wrath of magazines seeking to exploit scandals for the sake of sales.

Right-leaning commentators and publications have long slammed the Asahi’s apparent pro-China, pro-South Korea stance and its emphasis on maintaining friendly ties with Japan’s Asian neighbors, claiming the paper was pursuing a masochistic view of history by being an apologist for Japan.

The Yomiuri and Sankei emphasized that Yoshida’s “false” accounts regarding the comfort women, played up by the Asahi and other newspapers in the 1990s, used a 1992 interim investigation report by the South Korean government as evidence to prove that Japanese authorities forcibly recruited Korean females into sexual servitude. This conclusion was also mentioned in a 1996 report by Radhika Coomaraswamy, then the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, that was submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

“Whether the Asahi will admit that its reporting influenced the international society and whether it can take actions to restore the honor of Japan is an (important) point,” the Yomiuri argued in an article Sept. 13.

The Yomiuri and Sankei also argued that Yoshida’s account, particularly played up by the Asahi, helped spread worldwide the mistaken notion that the Japanese military was directly engaged in the forced recruitment of females into sexual slavery at the military brothels.

“The Asahi’s reporting on the comfort women has greatly damaged the dignity and national interests of Japan. We demand (that the Asahi) conduct a thorough investigation” into its past reporting, the Sankei argued in an editorial Sept. 12.

Mainstream Japanese historians now believe that, as far as South Korea is concerned, local private brokers, not the Japanese military or government authorities, were the main players in rounding up females for the comfort stations, often through human trafficking and abductions.

The Japanese historians share the view that there was no organized, large-scale role played directly by Japanese authorities in what is now South Korea in the forced recruitment of sex slaves.

And many right-leaning politicians, commentators and publications have played down the responsibility of the Japanese authorities and military, saying the comfort stations are no different from state-regulated private brothels that existed in many other countries, including Japan, before and during the war years.

But according to Kan Kimura, a professor of Korean studies at Kobe University, there is a wide perception gap between the South Korean and Japanese publics, and correcting the perceived errors in the Asahi’s reports alone will not help improve Japan’s international reputation.

In South Korea, Yoshida’s accounts were not considered important evidence of Japan’s alleged misdeeds involving the comfort women, according to Kimura.

The real-name testimony of former comfort women — not the Asahi’s reporting of Yoshida’s accounts — has served as the main evidence of the forced recruitment of the Korean females, Kimura said.

“Ordinary people in South Korea don’t know about Yoshida’s testimony. Meanwhile, activists have already known his accounts were false,” Kimura said.

“So correcting the Asahi’s reports won’t remedy (Japan’s reputation). More precisely, it will only have a negative impact,” he said.

South Korean media are already portraying the growing criticism of the Asahi as another indication of Japan’s shift to the right and efforts to play down Japan’s wartime responsibility, Kimura pointed out.

Most South Korean people think the debate over who forcibly recruited the females for the military brothels, whether private brokers or Japanese government authorities, is immaterial, Kimura said.

The situation is probably the same in the United States and other Western countries. U.S. diplomats and Japan experts, including Michael Green, have repeatedly said few people in the U.S. are interested in which party directly engaged in such recruitment.

A majority of intellectual leaders in the West appear to believe Japanese authorities were responsible for the sexual slavery, regardless of the actual process.

Mainstream Japanese historians also point out that the military brothels were set up under the instructions of the military, which regarded them as “logistical facilities” to provide “comfort” to Japanese soldiers during wartime.

“In today’s terms, the military just outsourced the recruitment work to private businesses, which were selected by the (Japanese) military or administrative authorities,” said Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a professor of modern history at Chuo University in Tokyo and a leading expert on comfort women issues.

Kenta Yamada, a professor of media studies at Senshu University in Tokyo, while declining to comment on the debate over comfort women issues because he is not a historian, said the Asahi should be held responsible for what it determined to errors in its reporting.

But Yamada said that media outlets and politicians appear to be waging political campaigns to change the Asahi’s political opinions and editing policy, rather than criticizing what they consider the paper’s reporting errors.

“For example, some politicians now argue that the president of the Asahi should be summoned to the Diet (to testify). You should draw a line between (a political campaign) and a media critique” to correct erroneous reporting, Yamada said.

Journalist Ikegami, whose regular column the Asahi once refused to publish, now appears to be worried more about the trend to bash the Asahi than the paper’s erroneous reporting in the past.

In a column in the weekly Shukan Bunshun published Sept. 18, he noted that a certain newspaper — apparently the Sankei — distributed a massive number of leaflets that were critical of the Asahi and calling on readers to subscribe to the Sankei.

“I’m concerned this may disappoint readers and (the public’s) trust of the overall newspaper industry could be lost. They may wonder if the criticism (against the Asahi) is just to seek commercial (benefits) or to seek accurate reporting,” Ikegami wrote.

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