An article published in the January 30, 2019, edition of The New York Times on the comfort women controversy currently straining Japan-South Korea relations quickly drew a sharp rebuttal from a spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The rebuttal was carried in that same influential American newspaper.
This is not the only instance of the Japanese government taking exception to some of the content in the extensive coverage The New York Times has given to the comfort women issue. Indeed, increasingly it seems that the bickering between the two Asian neighbors concerning history issues is being played out in U.S. newspapers.
The article in question appeared on page A-20 of the print edition of The New York Times under the byline of Choe Sang-Hun, the paper's Seoul bureau chief. The article, occasioned by the death of former Korean comfort woman Kim Bok-dong on January 28, characterized Ms. Kim as a “former sex slave for the Japanese military during World War II whose tireless campaigning helped bring international attention to the suffering that thousands of women like her endured.”
The article went on to state, “Japan has rejected the women’s demands for a formal apology and reparations.” The report thereby ignored the fact that in 1995 Japan had established the Asian Women’s Fund, with contributions from the Japanese government and other sources which distributed atonement money to many of the comfort women.
Moreover, concerning the 2015 agreement between the governments of Japan and South Korea for the final and irreversible resolution to the comfort women issues, Choe noted caustically, “It’s denunciation by Ms. Kim and other former sex slaves meant that it was all but dead on arrival.”
Foreign Ministry Calls Out Mistakes in NYT Reports
A letter from MFA press secretary Takeshi Osuga, published in the February 7 online edition of The New York Times, pointed out: “Japan has extended its sincere apologies and remorse to former comfort women on many occasions.”
Osuga went on to note that the 1965 treaty restoring basic diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea had legally settled all claims between the two nations, including the comfort women issue. He added, “Japan has made an effort to recover the honor and dignity and heal the psychological wounds of all former comfort women.”
In addition, Choe’s article gave the impression that all the self-identified comfort women had refused to accept money from the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation established by South Korea with the financial support of Japan. Osuga emphasized that 34 of the 47 surviving women had “received support from the fund and welcomed the effort.”
In providing the Japanese government’s response to The New York Times coverage of the comfort women issue and mistakes in its description of the Japan-South Korea agreement, Osuga’s letter affirmed, “This is an undeniable fact.”
According to the newspaper, Choe joined The New York Times in 2005, after a previous stint with the Associated Press (AP). An article he wrote in 2000 while working as a correspondent for AP concerning a massacre of South Korean civilians at No Gun Ri Bridge by the U.S. military in the early days of the Korean War (the “No Gun Ri Incident”) won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
Articles and Editorials Based on Misunderstanding of the Facts
Even after The Asahi Shimbun’s August 5, 2014, admission of error and retraction of all comfort women articles based on accounts by a man named Seiji Yoshida, The New York Times continued to publish articles and editorials filled with misrepresentations of the facts. In the retracted Asahi accounts, Yoshida claimed he had participated in the "forcible conscription" of numerous comfort women. His claims were later found to be untrue, prompting the retraction of all articles based on his false testimony.
For example, in its online edition dated December 2, 2014, the New York Times published an article labeling as "(historical) revisionists" those individuals who wanted to revisit the August 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. Language in the “Kono Statement” declared without evidence that in many cases the comfort women were recruited to work in military brothels against their will.
Likewise, on December 4, 2014, The New York Times published an editorial on “Whitewashing History in Japan.” In it, the paper contended Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “pandering to Japanese political forces that are demanding that Japan’s wartime history be revised” amounted to “playing with fire.”
It further argued that this was not only inviting criticism from China and South Korea, but also had become an object of concern in the United States.
On December 15, 2014 The New York Times carried a letter from Sumio Kusaka, consul general of Japan in New York, as a rebuttal from the Japanese government. Among other things, it argued: “Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly said we should face up squarely to the country’s history.”
That same month the Los Angeles Times carried a similar rebuttal to an editorial it had run alleging Japan was engaged in historical revisionism, which was penned by Hidehisa Horinouchi, consul general of Japan in Los Angeles.
Criticism of Inaccurate Reporting Continues
The New York Times has, in fact, for some time served as a forum for anti-Japanese elements to express their views.
For example, in 2012 it carried an opinion advertisement by Seo Kyung-duk (aka Seo Kyoung-duk), a professor at Sungshin Women’s University, demanding the Japanese government apologize to the comfort women. In response, the Committee for Historical Facts (Rekishi jijitsu iinkai), whose members include Japanese journalist Yoshiko Sakurai, ran a rebuttal in a local newspaper in New Jersey denying the “forced conscription” claimed in Seo’s article.
A spokesman for Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says, “No matter what the media, we will continue to call out inaccurate reporting.”
(Click here to read the article in its original Japanese.)
Authors: Yoshinari Kurose, The Sankei Shimbun Washington Bureau Chief, and Yusuke Hirata, Staff Writer, The Sankei Shimbun Foreign News Desk