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INTERVIEW l Tsutomu Nishioka On History From Comfort Women to the Abductions

Longtime scholar of Korean Peninsula issues, Professor Tsutomu Nishioka analyzes the challenges and progress in relations between Japan and South Korea.



Nishioka speaks at the September 5 Comfort Women Symposium in Seoul, South Korea. (©Kim Byungheon)

Issues surrounding the comfort women and North Korea's abductions have troubled Tokyo's politicians and diplomats for decades. But little known outside Japan, it was a Japanese academic, Tsutomu Nishioka, who initially sought resolutions to these conflicts. 

Nishioka, now a professor at Reitaku University, first raised public awareness of the comfort women and abduction issue through publications in 1991. At the time, most of the establishment media and academics dismissed his claims. But he persisted and continued his research with a sense of obligation. 

Nishioka’s journey wasn’t without obstacles, however. He was threatened and repressed and was forced to resign from his previous university position. Truly, his years of experience on the front line are reminiscent of a modern-day David and Goliath tale.

Recently, I read passages in Nishioka's new book that offered a note of optimism. He noted that positive developments were underway in the two diplomatic issues that had vexed Japan for so long. I immediately contacted him requesting an interview, and he graciously agreed. 

Excerpts of the final part of the interview follow.


Last of 2 parts

Read Part 1: INTERVIEW | Tsutomu Nishioka: Emerging on Japan's Front Lines with Korea

Japan and South Korea also share the North Korean abduction issue. I've heard there's been a major development since the Abe administration. Can you explain? 

On May 27, 2023, at a National Assembly organized by our organization Sukuukai (Japanese abductees rescue organization) and others, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated: "I hope to hold high-level talks in my administration to realize a summit meeting (with North Korea) at the earliest possible date." 

Two days later, on May 29, Pak Sang Gil, vice-minister of North Korean Foreign Affairs, issued a statement. In it, he replied, "There is no reason why North Korea and Japan cannot meet with each other." 

Kishida's comments surprised me. But the speed of the Kim [Jong Un] regime's response gave me an even deeper impression. 


The May 27 was a Saturday. Kishida gave a speech at our assembly around 2:30 PM that day. A statement was announced by the North Korean counterpart on the morning of Monday, May 29. Someone must have attended the Assembly, transcribed a tape, and sent it to Pyongyang. Then they must have prepared a draft statement for Kim Jong Un's approval and issued it on the following Monday.

PM Kishida receives documents containing the Japanese families and Sukuukai's new policy positions at the prime minister's official residence on March 1, 2023. (© Prime Minister's Office)

What was North Korea's response?

Sunday is basically a weekend in North Korea as well. But in North Korea, Kim Jong Un's authorization is required for any agenda to move ahead. It's called the Monolithic Leadership System, where only the Supreme Leader has the power to make the final call. The rest of the executives execute the will of the leader. So there's always a line of people waiting to get Kim's approval. 

But this time the officials bypassed the line to get Kim's consent over the weekend. This would not have happened unless Kim Jong Un had given prior orders to report what PM Kishida said at the event. 

I believe, therefore, some sort of communication had taken place earlier.

So what did PM Kishida say at the Citizens' Rally? 

At the national Citizens' Rally to Demand the Immediate Return to Japan of All Abductees, Kishida made it clear that the abductions issue is a "human rights issue with a time limit." This means that the abduction issue should be addressed separately, ahead of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile threats. 

Additionally, he conveyed the message that the Japanese government was willing to provide humanitarian assistance to the North once all abductees returned home. As humanitarian issues do not violate UN sanctions, Japan may send such assistance if North Korea commits to its end of the deal.

In May of this year, Kazokukai (Japanese families of abductees organization) and the Sukuukai visited the United States. There, we informed then-Deputy Secretary of the US Department of State Wendy Sherman and other officials of our new policy and the American counterparts didn't object. 

North Korea is currently facing its worst food shortage since the great famine of the 1990s. That one killed over 3 million people. And with negotiations frozen with the US since the Trump administration, there is no reason for North Korea to stay away from the negotiating table. In this sense, we may be facing the greatest tipping point in rescuing the abductees since [PM Junichiro] Koizumi's visit to North Korea in 2002.

Then-Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (fourth from left) with the visiting delegation from Japan. Nishioka is second from left. (©US Department of State)

The second Comfort Women Symposium was held in Seoul. I heard that the perception of the comfort women issue is changing in South Korea. Can you explain?

On September 5, scholars and activists from Japan and South Korea convened for a joint symposium in Seoul. All of the participants contest the narratives of forced abduction and sexual slavery. 

About 100 people gathered at the Korean Press Center, including many guests from the US, as well as Japan and South Korea. (Professor J Mark Ramseyer of Harvard Law School also delivered a video message.) 

This is the first time such a historic Japan-South Korea joint symposium was held in Seoul. We also witnessed a playing of "Kimigayo" in the opening ceremony, where some in the audience lustily sang along. 

Comfort Woman History
Professor Nishioka is at the far left on a panel at the Japan-South Korea joint symposium held in Seoul on September 5 to refute the falsehoods spread about the comfort women issue. (©Sankei by Norio Sakurai)

I was able to present on the comfort women issue in the middle of Seoul. Considering that the leftist media in South Korea have often criticized me as "Japan's leading far rightist" and a "historical revisionist," this illustrates a drastic change in public perception. 

Moreover, after Yoon Suk-yeol came to power, an increasing number of conservatives in South Korea requested to hear my views on Japan and South Korea's historical disputes. This was unthinkable under the previous administration. 


Under Moon Jae In's reign, MBC, a South Korean TV broadcaster, aired a segment introducing me and Yoshiko Sakurai, president of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, on their "PD Notebook (08/10/21) program. They described us as Japan's rightists with unjust ties to the South Korean national intelligence services. 

You are considered a leading expert on the comfort women and abductions issue. On the former, you were the first scholar to refute the forced abduction theory and point out inconsistencies in Kim Hak-Sun's testimony. You were also the first to publicly raise awareness of the abduction issue. How did it all begin?

As a scholar, I published the first paper on the abduction issue in 1991. In September 1990, former Deputy Prime Minister Shin Kanemaru, LDP, and Socialist Party Vice-Chairman Makoto Tanabe visited North Korea. The delegates met with Kim Il Sung and agreed to negotiate a diplomatic normalization between Japan and North Korea.

But the high-level talks made no mention of the abductions issue whatsoever. The Japanese media, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were supportive of the normalization. Likewise, no experts were seriously concerned about this issue, except for those associated with the Gendai Korea Research Institute. I led the institute at the time. 

Fearing that the normalization would proceed with the abductions issue completely neglected, I published an article in the Shokun!. It is a conservative opinion magazine once issued by the publisher, Bungeishunju. My arguments were largely ignored by all but a few conservatives at the time.

Since the comfort women subject involved women's sexuality, criticizing the former comfort women and their supporters required a great deal of courage. Meanwhile, most of the intellectuals in Japan were hidden socialists. Also, the [pro-North Korea] Chōsen Sōren organization was quite influential at the time. The said group often engaged in violent protests against free speech

It therefore required firm commitment to speak out on the abduction issue as well. This meant openly criticizing North Korea and Chōsen Sōren. A number of security officials contacted me after my publication asking if I was in any danger. I even received blackmail attempts.

In some respects, you have changed the course of Japan's history. What do you think of this evaluation?

My paper on comfort women was the impetus for Dr Ikuhiko Hata to begin his research on comfort women. Dr Hata wrote a paper exposing the lies of Seiji Yoshida based on his field research on Jeju Island in 1992. In 1999, he published Comfort Women and Sex in the Battlezone (Shinchosha (Japanese) in 1999, Hamilton Books (English) in 2018). It was translated into Korean just last year.

I have repeatedly voiced through magazines and books since 1991 that the comfort women-related articles by the Asahi Shimbun and Takashi Uemura were fabricated. Then, on 3 March 2020, I had a sweeping victory in the case brought against me by Uemura. We call it the "Fabricated Article" case. 

In the trial, Uemura claimed that my following three arguments constituted libel:

1) The appellant (Uemura) was aware that Kim Hak-Sun was sold to a kisaeng (traditional Korean female entertainment house) because of economic poverty. But he dared not to write the inconvenient fact in his reports. He wanted to present his assumption that she was coercively recruited by authorities.

(2) The appellant intentionally wrote factually inaccurate reports to bolster the theory of authorities' coercive recruitment of comfort women. And he wanted to support a lawsuit filed by his mother-in-law who was among the leaders of an Association for Families of War Victims. (The lawsuit sought damages for former comfort women.) 


(3) The appellant dared to write the factually inaccurate reports claiming that Kim Hak-Sun was coercively recruited as a "woman volunteer corps" (for factory work) and instead taken to a battlefield where she was forced to have sex with the Japanese.

What changes came out of this court case?

The high court ruled that the first and second points were reasonably believed to be true and the third point was true. In other words, the court judged that Uemura's article was effectively a fabrication.

My publications and the trial prompted Asahi Shimbun to review its own comfort women-related articles that were called into question. In August 2014, they recognized Yoshida's testimony as false and retracted related articles. In September of that year, the company went as far as publicly apologizing in a press conference.

I'm not sure if I have changed the course of history, but I believe I have partially contributed to resolving Japan and South Korea's historical quarrels.

What efforts should be made in the future to dismantle the anti-Japan and anti-Korea historical views?

The "Anti-Comfort Women Statue" rally was jointly held by Japan and Korea on September 6, 2023. Nishioka is second from the left. (©Kim Byungheon)

Compared to the leftist community, conservatives in Japan and South Korea have been unable to cooperate effectively, so far. A number of factors contribute to this, including ethnic sentiments.

But now, we the "truth forces" of the two nations, must join hands to expose and hold accountable the conspiracies and manipulations of the "lying forces" in Japan, South Korea, and North Korea.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Kenji Yoshida

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