Commentary / Japan | COUNTERPOINT

Hyperbole over Asahi affair tarnishes brand Japan

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

The Asahi Shimbun has been apologetic of late after it confessed to journalistic wrongdoing in several articles.

The newspaper has admitted an interview with the president of Nintendo was fabricated and that a story in May on the Fukushima accident erred in asserting that plant workers defied orders not to leave the plant site, and, most notably, apologized for a series of stories it ran in the 1990s on the South Korean comfort women long after the source was debunked.

The Asahi also stumbled during its damage control efforts when it censored a story by one of its regular columnists, Akira Ikegami, who criticized the comfort women coverage. What started as an exercise in taking ethical responsibility and trying to regain credibility descended into a theater of the absurd. More bluntly, the Asahi’s editors showed an incredible capacity for stupidity.

The right-wing media has teed off on the Asahi, blowing the miscues out of proportion. Before they start pointing fingers, perhaps those other media outlets should take account of their own journalistic sins.

Conservative politicians, reactionaries, the powerful and the corrupt have long squirmed under the liberal Asahi’s scrutiny. They are no doubt delighted their nemesis is now the one cringing from a barrage of bad publicity. Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could not resist the sweet taste of schadenfreude, admitting to the press that he really shouldn’t take delight from the Asahi’s woes, but did so anyway.

Naturally, Team Abe is manipulating the Asahi affair for political advantage. This saga is, after all, more about politics than journalism, part of a larger culture war being waged by conservatives to redefine Japanese identity on their terms. The Asahi has long been the right’s main media adversary in this culture war and thus a prime target.

Yes, the Asahi relied way too long on Seiji Yoshida’s testimony about the coerced recruitment of women into sexual servitude after it was discredited, but there is abundant evidence that the system was widespread and involved egregious violations of human rights in an atmosphere of intimidation.

Reactionaries want to use Asahi’s blunder to wipe the slate clean on the subject of comfort women, but who do they think they are kidding? Even if they “prove” recruitment was not at the point of a bayonet, Japan’s reputation will suffer even more because quibbling over the coercion involved in rounding up teenage girls for sex is undignified.

There is no doubt that from 1932-45 Japan’s Imperial Army was recruiting young Asian women to serve as sex slaves and operated “comfort stations.” Indeed, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone admitted in his memoirs that he had done so while serving in the navy. Those in doubt of the facts can simply consult the vast archive of evidence gathered by the Asian Women’s Fund, which is sponsored by the government and now available to view at the AWF digital library currently hosted by the National Diet Library (www.awf.or.jp).

Numerous books and articles present extensive proof of the comfort women system, and a new book about the system in China details the same horrific patterns of coercion and abuses observed in Korea. Peipei Qiu’s “Chinese Comfort Women” (2014) should be required reading for Abe’s history-whitewashing Cabinet, which includes 15 members of Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), a reactionary political group that has been compared to America’s Tea Party. Both groups draw on deep anxieties over national identity as they seek to mainstream messages from a right-wing discourse that used to be confined to the lunatic fringe.

Yoshida’s testimony is not crucial to our understanding of this sordid system. In fact, Nobuo Ishihara, the former deputy chief Cabinet secretary involved in drafting the 1993 Kono Statement, recently confirmed that this historic mea culpa acknowledging coercive recruitment and the military’s involvement in the comfort women system did not rely at all on what Yoshida said.

That has not stopped reactionaries from scapegoating the Asahi for tarnishing Japan’s reputation overseas by its extensive reporting on the comfort women.

But why do these detractors think that coming clean about Japan’s past hurts the nation’s image? Surely Japan’s reputation is sullied far more by the deniers and minimizers who can’t accept responsibility over wartime atrocities, particularly when it comes to the comfort women system. Problematically, the shabby treatment of the comfort women, compounded by ongoing denials, stymies their efforts to rehabilitate and glorify the nation’s wartime past.

Germany has regained its dignity by facing up to its vile history, while prominent Japanese still cling to vindicating and valorizing wartime narratives that befoul Japan’s brand and prevent reconciliation. Newly appointed Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi has called for issuing a new statement about the comfort women in order to sabotage the Kono Statement. Doing so would be a diplomatic blunder of epic proportions and make Japan look churlishly irresponsible, so there is little chance this will occur. However, it is disconcerting that such deniers fill Abe’s Cabinet. They damage Japan’s stature by their prominence.

The other main Asahi scandal refers to the testimony of the late Masao Yoshida, plant manager of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant during the March 2011 nuclear disaster. The Sankei Shimbun accused the Asahi of distorting Yoshida’s comments regarding the evacuation of workers, but both newspapers seem to have read their own agendas into his words.

Yoshida said that the workers who escaped to the Fukushima No. 2 site 10 km away — 90 percent of all workers at the plant — were correct to ignore his original directive to evacuate to a safer place on site. Therefore he didn’t feel they intentionally defied his order as the Asahi suggested, but clearly they didn’t obey it either, perhaps because they didn’t actually hear or comprehend the order amid the chaos. Yoshida also complained that the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s headquarters misunderstood his comments pertaining to an evacuation and did not clearly convey the situation to the prime minister’s office at the time.

In terms of nuclear safety issues, it is obvious that Yoshida was overwhelmed in trying to manage a cascading disaster and as a result, communications during the crisis were garbled. It is unsettling to know that his directives were not effectively delivered or understood and that the workers — certainly making the right call — were nonetheless unavailable had they been urgently needed.

It is also worrisome that Yoshida admitted to not knowing how to properly use some of the emergency systems. The Nuclear Regulation Authority’s new safety criteria do not address crucial issues such as these or inadequate plans for evacuating residents from within the 30-km evacuation zone in the event of an accident. It is obvious that the nuclear industry has not learned the folly of wishing risk away and still lacks a culture of safety.

Thanks to the Asahi, Yoshida’s testimony was made public and we have learned more about the critical lessons that have since been ignored.

Amid the politically charged vilification, let’s not forget how much the Asahi has helped democracy in Japan by exposing misconduct and promoting transparency, and how it has boosted Japan’s reputation by taking the measure of its wartime past. As Abe drags a reluctant nation — one that overwhelmingly opposes his agenda on nuclear reactor restarts, arms exports, collective self-defense and secrecy legislation — to the right, Japan more than ever needs the Asahi to regain its footing and expose his chicaneries.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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