An independent panel has concluded there is no clear evidence that Asahi Shimbun reports citing a discredited witness fueled international condemnation of Japan for its use of foreign females in wartime military brothels.
The finding, announced Monday, rebuts a charge voiced by conservatives, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that the newspaper — a favorite target of the right — has discredited Japan in the eyes of the world.
The left-leaning Asahi, Japan’s second-largest newspaper, appointed a panel of seven outsiders to investigate its own reporting.
They examined the newspaper’s use of quotes from Seiji Yoshida, a wartime labor official, in a series of articles published in the 1980s and ’90s.
Yoshida had said he “hunted” Korean women on the southern Korean island of Jeju in 1943, forcing them to become prostitutes in Japan’s military brothels. Experts in the early 1990s came to a consensus that he had been lying.
In August the Asahi retracted the articles it ran based on Yoshida’s testimony. It eventually issued an apology, but only after coming under harsh attack from right-wing media.
The panel, appointed after this incident, concluded the articles were not directly responsible for establishing the general impression that Japan coerced women from Korea, China and elsewhere as “comfort women” to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
A 1993 government investigation concluded many of the women were recruited against their will, and military and government officials were often directly involved. Historians say ample wartime documents and witness accounts support that.
But the investigation found no proof in surviving official documents, something conservatives now cite to insist that coercion did not take place. They imply the women were common prostitutes, out to make money.
They also say Yoshida’s account was the root cause of wrongful accusations of sexual slavery which led to Japan’s landmark 1993 apology on the matter by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.
Abe is thought to want to revise the Kono statement but has promised not to do so following protests from Seoul and elsewhere. Japan’s neighbors are sensitive to apparent revisionism, and relations with South Korea in particular remain poor because of this.
The right-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the largest circulation, apologized last month for calling the women “sex slaves” in some articles in its English-language newspaper.
The third-party panel said the Asahi’s own apology came too late, and that its top management was to blame for that.
“Let me offer my deepest apology for causing everyone trouble and anxiety regarding our comfort women coverage,” Asahi President Masataka Watanabe said as he received the report from a panel member. “I promise that we will carry out reforms to rebuild the Asahi Shimbun from the ground up.”
The former president, Tadakazu Kimura, stepped down in December to take responsibility for the retraction of articles.
The Asahi holds a unique place among Japan’s leading newspapers with its liberal stance, as opposed to the centrist Mainichi and the conservative Yomiuri and Sankei, both of which often echo the positions of the Abe administration.