When history becomes a battleground for the truth, it can become a grueling battle in the courtroom.
This was the case of a lawsuit brought by former Asahi Shimbun reporter Takashi Uemura against Professor Tsutomu Nishioka on the issue of comfort women — a topic which goes back to World War II but continues to bring tension to Japan and South Korean relations to this day.
Professor Nishioka had accused Uemura of “fabricating” his stories about comfort women in a series of articles he wrote in the Japanese daily, Asahi Shimbun. The first of Uemura’s articles was published on August 11, 1991.
Uemura claimed that Nishioka’s accusations, and similar charges articulated by other critics, caused damage to his reputation. Uemura then sued for libel in 2015, demanding compensation for damage to his reputation.
After losing at the trial and appellate levels of his case, Uemura appealed to the Supreme Court in Tokyo. That court, led by Judge Hiroshi Koike, issued its second ruling in the case on March 11, 2021, rejecting Uemura’s appeal. The court instead concluded: “An important part of the articles and claims [of fabrication] moved by Mr. Nishioka were based on the truth.”
Takashi Uemura is a former journalist for the Japanese daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun. In 1991, he wrote articles for a series run by the newspaper on “comfort women,” a euphemism for women who provided sex services during the Second World War. Uemura’s stories focused on the testimony of Kim Hak Sun (aka Kim Hak-soon), a South Korean former comfort woman.
Tsutomu Nishioka is a visiting professor at Reitaku University and a scholar and expert in Korean Peninsula affairs. Nishioka was among many who accused Uemura of twisting the truth in his Asahi Shimbun articles and in articles he wrote for other publications, including the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun in 2014.
Yoshiko Sakurai, a former Nihon Television broadcaster and now president of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, sided with Nishioka and accused Uemura of “fabrication.” She, too, was sued by Uemura for defamation in 2015. The trial court also decided in Sakurai’s favor in 2018, and that decision was upheld by the Tokyo Supreme Court in 2020.
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The March 2021 Supreme Court ruling, the second that the court had issued in this case, reaffirmed the rulings of earlier courts in favor of Nishioka’s claims.
One of the key points of contention relied on the language Uemura originally wrote in his articles published in 1991. That language read, “Women were forcibly taken by the Japanese army and taken to the front, and forced to become comfort women.”
The court found that in this statement, Uemura “willfully wrote something which was not true, thereby an important part of the articles and claims moved by Mr. Nishioka were based on the truth.”
In addition, because Nishioka’s accusations had the aim of defending the national interest, Uemura was denied libel compensation on any part of his case. This upheld a March 2020 decision taken by the Tokyo High Court.
This latest decision certainly goes beyond a reporter and a newspaper’s reputation, and contributes to the battle for truth, as new generations of journalists and scholars dust off records and revisit historical evidence about comfort women.
Author: Arielle Busetto