It’s a story that was covered lightly by Japanese newspapers, including the Sankei Shimbun. But the Supreme Court’s recent decision to dismiss the appeal of a case involving the Asahi Shimbun’s reporting over the comfort women issueーwhich was intentionally false and distorted historical perceptions of Japan over many yearsーis significant.
Reporting that Led to Uemura’ Case Against Sakurai
The background to the decision goes back several years. In February 2015, former-Asahi Shimbun journalist Takashi Uemura demanded compensation from the journalist Yoshiko Sakurai and three publishers, claiming that they had defamed him by stating that his article on comfort women was fabricated.
However, on November 18, 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed Uemura’s appeal, upholding previous court rulings.
Later that week, the Asahi Shimbun ran a minor article in its morning edition on November 20 stating: “Former-Asahi journalist loses lawsuit over comfort women reporting.”
Given that the Asahi had previously run articles on ex-soldier Seiji Yoshida’s false testimony alleging the kidnapping comfort women during the war, and that the paper had published the Uemura article at the heart of the recent Supreme Court appeal, shouldn’t it show more contritionーon the front page of the newspaper?
The Uemura article at the root of this issue was first published in the Osaka edition of The Asahi Shimbun on August 11, 1991. It included the line: “Former Korean comfort woman speaks out after half a century.”
The article ignited the issue surrounding comfort women because it quoted testimony by a former Korean comfort woman. At that point in time, no Korean newspaper had run such testimony.
The article included the following text:
‘Korean comfort women’ were taken to the battlefield in the name of the ‘women’s volunteer corps’ and forced to engage in acts of prostitution with Japanese soldiers. One such woman has been identified, and she is living in Seoul…Nearly a half-century after the war, the women who have done their best to hide their experiences have finally started to speak out.
The woman’s identity was anonymous at the time of publication, but it later emerged that her name was Kim Hak Sun. However, Kim was actually taken to China by her adoptive father, and she was never taken anywhere in the name of the “women’s volunteer corps”.
Moreover, Uemura never actually met Kim or spoke to her – and Kim’s name was not specified in the article. An anti-Japan organization provided Uemura with a tape that had a recording of an anonymous testimony, which the former Asahi journalist used for his article.
Getting to the Truth
In July 2015, I asked Uemura, “Did the words ‘volunteer corps’ appear on the tape?” He replied curtly, “It’s not clear. At that particular time in Korea, ‘volunteer corps’ and ‘comfort women’ were the same thing.”
The fact that Asahi published this story prominently in one of its editions, based on fairly weak material, surprised me.
In September 2014, then-president of The Asahi Shimbun, Tadakazu Kimura, apologized for some of Asahi’s reporting on comfort women in a news conference at the company’s head office in Tsukiji, Tokyo. However, with regard to the article by Uemura, Kimura insisted that there was no “twisting of the truth.”
Nevertheless, in December 2014, an Asahi Shimbun Third-Party Committee looked into the newspaper’s reporting on comfort women, and concluded the following regarding Uemura’s article.
While Uemura clearly understood from listening to the tape that the woman in his article clearly represented an example of a woman who had been ‘deceived’ into becoming a comfort woman, in the preface to his article, he wrote: ‘…taken to the front in the name of the ‘women’s volunteer corps’…”
In the end, The Asahi Shimbun accepted the third-party committee’s feedback and corrected their stance on the article, sayingーmore than 23 years after the article was first published: “There is no truth in the statement that this woman was taken to the front in the name of the women’s volunteer corps.”
Multiple Lawsuits – Same Conclusion
Just as he did against Sakurai, Uemura also filed a defamation lawsuit against a university professor named Tsutomu Nishioka. However, Uemura lost in both the Tokyo District Court and the Tokyo High Court.
Essentially, the Tokyo District Court and the Tokyo High Court decided that the use of the word ‘fabrication’ in Nishioka’s paper was appropriate.
In November 2018, Sapporo District Court closed with the following remarks after dismissing Uemura’s lawsuit against Sakurai.
The issue surrounding comfort women does not only affect Japan-South Korea relations. It is an international issue that has also been discussed by the UN and in the U.S. Therefore, the descriptions that have come up in this case are in the public interest. The Asahi Shimbun’s reporting on the comfort women issue and criticism of the claimant who wrote the article must be used for public interest purposes.
The Asahi Shimbun should demonstrate sincerity and acknowledge the decision regarding its reporter. To begin with, it should respond properly to the latest Supreme Court decision, and dedicate a larger part of its newspaper to reporting about the decision in detail.
(Find access to the original article here, in Japanese.)
Author: Rui Abiru, editorial writer and political section editorial staff member