Former Asahi Shimbun newspaper reporter Takashi Uemura said at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) that he regrets he “won the debate” over his comfort women articles but lost in the lawsuit he brought against someone who merely pointed out the errors in his coverage.
Uemura’s defiant comment came after the Sapporo district court on November 9, 2018, rejected his claim that Yoshiko Sakurai had defamed him over his Asahi Newspaper article about Kim Hak-Sun.
Kim is a Korean woman who came forward as a former comfort woman in 1991. Sakurai is the leading conservative journalist in Japan and the head of the Japan Institute of National Fundamentals.
On August 11, 1991, Uemura wrote an article in the Asahi Newspaper Osaka edition depicting Kim Hak-Sun as follows: “It is found that one of the ‘Korean comfort women’ who was taken to the battlefield under the name of ‘Joshi Teishin Tai’ (Female Volunteer Corps) and was forced to prostitute herself for the Japanese soldiers, is still alive in Seoul.”
Sakurai was one of many who criticized Uemura’s article as inconsistent with facts and also as misleading, even amounting to a fabrication. In 2015, Uemura sued Sakurai for defamation instead of fighting back in debate.
In court, however, it became apparent that, in his 1991 article, Uemura did not write what Kim said, and instead wrote what Kim did not say.
On three different occasions Kim described her life.
First, on August 14, 1991, just a few days after the publication of Uemura’s article, Kim participated in a press conference held in Seoul. According to South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper report, Kim described her life, saying that her mother sold her at the age of 14 to the owner of a Kisaeng house (Korean traditional brothel) in Pyongyang. When she became 17 years old, the owner, who had become her adoptive father, took her to Japanese troops in China. There she became a comfort woman.
Second, in her complaint when she sued the Japanese government, along with other Korean men and women, in December 1991, Kim claimed that she became an adopted daughter of a person called Kim Tai-Gen and entered a kisaeng school for three years from the age of 14. When she became 17 years old, she was told that she could make money in China and was then taken there by her adoptive father, Tai-Gen.
Third, a Japanese person surnamed Usuki also interviewed Kim and contributed an article to the monthly magazine, Hoseki. Once again, Kim repeated the same story of the Hankyoreh newspaper, but added that her mother sold her into service to a kisaeng for ¥ 40.
In Uemura’s case against Sakurai, the Sapporo district court found that Kim’s three separate testimonials were consistent enough to justify assuming that they accurately described what Kim had gone through.
From the three testimonials Kim’s story can be summarized as follows:
Kim was born in Jilin province in Manchuria in 1924. Her father passed away about 100 days after her birth. Struggling with poverty, her mother sold Kim to a Kisaeng house (Korean traditional brothel) in Pyongyang for ¥ 40. She was trained there for three years, and when she became 17 years old, Kim was told that she could make money in China and was taken there by the owner of the Kisaeng house who bought her. In China she became a comfort woman for Japanese troops stationed there.
However, Uemura did not write any part of Kim’s successive testimonials in his article for the Asahi Newspaper, despite the fact that Kim’s testimonials form the main part of her own story.
Instead, Uemura wrote what Kim did not say at all. On the three occasions mentioned above, Kim never said that she was taken away to join the female volunteer corps (“Joshi Teishin Tai”). The Joshi Teishin Tai was formed in accordance with a mobilization law during wartime, but had nothing whatsoever to do with the comfort women.
The existence of comfort women was never a secret. It was commonly known and even appeared in films. What shocked the Japanese people was Uemura’s assertion, attributed to Kim, that a young woman, recruited for the volunteer corps which was supposed to be purely for factory work volunteers, was forced to become a comfort woman. The Japanese people were horrified by Uemura’s Asahi Newspaper article and felt deeply sorry for Kim.
Uemura admitted that he never personally interviewed Kim himself. He only listened to a taped interview he claimed was owned by Chong Dae Hyup, a South Korean activist group running a campaign on this matter, before writing his article on August 11, 1991. Chong Dae Hyup allegedly interviewed Kim, but Uemura testified in the Sapporo district court that he no longer possessed the tape nor any memos he might have taken at the time.
Uemura also admitted that he was fully aware that the comfort women and the female volunteer corps (Joshi Teishin Tai) were completely different. Uemura further admitted knowing that Kim had not been taken to the female volunteer corps, either.
Nonetheless, Uemura still wrote that Kim was forced to prostitute herself after she was taken away to the female volunteer corps. Uemura apparently wrote this for the sole reason that he thought that comfort women and the female volunteer corps were confused and synonymous in South Korea at the time.
Uemura’s claim further contradicts the fact that the Asahi Newspaper retracted his 1991 article for having confused the two completely different things, the comfort women and the Joshi Teishin Tai, citing the lack of evidence available when the article was published.
Accordingly, the Sapporo district court concluded that Sakurai did have a valid reason to criticize Uemura’s article as so misleading as to be tantamount to fabrication.
Sakurai’s criticism did damage Uemura’s reputation as a journalist. But her act was clearly in line with the public interest, as the comfort women issue was blown up into an international incident as a result of the Asahi’ Newspaper’s massive misleading campaign. Therefore, Sakurai’s criticism did not constitute defamation.
It was also noted by the Sapporo district court that Uemura’s Korean mother-in-law was the director of a group which organized the lawsuit against the Japanese government on the comfort women issue. She was later arrested for a fraud. From the standpoint of journalistic ethics, Uemura should not have written an article that was supportive of his mother-in-law’s activities in the first place.
Dissatisfied with his loss in the Sapporo district court, Uemura has already appealed the ruling.
Sakurai sent him a clear message that journalists should engage in debates when opinions differ, rather than litigate those debates in court.
According to Uemura, he won his debate over the comfort women. But did he? No — he is still running away from the facts.
Author: Tetsuhide Yamaoka