“I am not a revisionist,” Yoshiko Sakurai said calmly, despite the sudden rise in tension in the room.
She was answering a question posed by Pio D’Emilia, Italian journalist for Sky TG24, at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on November 16.
“Revisionists are those who seek to rewrite history. I don’t think I do that. If anything, I think Asahi newspaper and Mr. [Takashi] Uemura are doing that,” she continued.
On November 9, a court in Sapporo, presided over by Tadahiro Okayama, ruled on a case which started in 2015. Takashi Uemura, former journalist at Asahi Shimbun, sued Yoshiko Sakurai, journalist and president of the think-tank Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, for defamation. Sakurai was accused of wrongly labeling articles Uemura wrote in 1991 as a “fabrication.”
The court found Sakurai not guilty of the charges.
The topic of the articles was the issue of “comfort women,” a euphemism for women who “comforted” the Japanese military as part of the war effort.
Two press conferences on the case took place at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo soon after the decision. Takashi Uemura and his lawyer, Nobukatsu Onodera, presented their point of view on November 15. The following afternoon, Yoshiko Sakurai and her lawyer, Izumi Hayashi, spoke to a full house.
Despite the risk of turning into he-said-she-said forums, the separate press conferences also enlightened those who attended on the differences between the parties in terms of character and approach. Overall, Sakurai’s team was better prepared and it was easy to understand why she had won the lawsuit.
The Basics of the Case
The lawsuit centered around an article which Takashi Uemura wrote in 1991 that purported to be based on the testimony of a former comfort woman, Kim Hak-sun.
The premise was that, in 2014, Sakurai accused Uemura of “fabricating” his 1991 article, and Uemura sued her for defaming him by using that description of his work. The ruling stated it couldn’t be proven that Uemura had fabricated the article, but the court concluded that Sakurai had used due diligence and had reason to believe that he had. The due diligence claim was based on sources which reported Kim Hak-sun’s testimony at the time.
Takashi Uemura’s Claims
On November 15, Uemura, who is now an adjunct professor at the Korean Catholic University in Seoul, presented his answers to the contentions in the lawsuit.
He stressed that this was an unjust ruling as it didn’t attribute any responsibility for the “bashing” he received. He claimed that as a consequence of being called a “fabricator,” he lost a job at Kobe University, and his daughter even received death threats.
Uemura stressed that the ruling had not proven his article to be a “fabrication.”
Finally, he said that Sakurai had neither contacted him, Asahi Shimbun, Kim Hak-sun. or the any other party involved in the course of her research for her article accusing him of fabrication.
Overall, he gave the impression of a man who was tired of fighting this battle, and in fact almost pleaded with Sakurai to move forward from this debate to instead discuss how an issue like the comfort women could be avoided in the future.
Yoshiko Sakurai’s Claims
On November 16, Yoshiko Sakurai and her lawyer presented the main points of their defense.
First, lawyer Izumi Hayashi highlighted the original sentence of Uemura’s article, which was subsequently changed and corrected by The Asahi Shimbun in 2014 with a formal apology, saying the original sentence “wasn’t true.” Given that even Asahi acknowledged the mistake must mean the author knowingly wrote a false account, for there was no evidence to support his claim.
The reason the court gave for supporting Sakurai’s exercise of due diligence also raises an interesting point — that it’s because the topic is of national interest. Given the level of national interest in the issue, Sakurai's claim was considered reasonable under the circumstances.
Sakurai also defended herself from Uemura’s accusation that she did not conduct proper research before writing her article. She explained how a journalist and expert who was working with her on the issue, Tsutomu Nishioka, had contacted Uemura, but that Uemura had twice refused to respond.
She said that she had contacted The Asahi Shimbun herself, but only received what she defined as “a polite response but not based on the truth.”
As lawyer Izumi Hayashi walked the audience through the court process, it became clear how Sakurai had secured a win for her lawsuit. They presented specific and concrete evidence and their side was better at arguing her case.
Historically Difficult Issue
The issue of comfort women came to the fore following coverage of the issue by The Asahi Shimbun in the 1980s and the 1990s. It published 16 articles based on the testimony of one man, Seiji Yoshida, who worked for the Yamaguchi Prefecture local government during World War II. He claimed to have forcibly recruited 200 Korean women from Jeju Island and turned them into sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army.
These stories created a domestic and international outcry. After a cursory government investigation, Yohei Kono, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, issued an apology for the supposed recruitment of comfort women for the Japanese Imperial Army (although they were not directly recruited by the Army or the Japanese government). This was also the basis of several United Nations resolutions, which touched upon sexual violence in military situations.
The testimony must have sounded fishy to many, because more than 20 years later, in 2014, Ikuhiko Hata, a historian who had researched the war era, revealed to the Sankei Shimbun that he had interviewed residents of Jeju Island and had not found anyone who could corroborate Yoshida’s account.
The shock of the 1990s was renewed, but with more information. The Asahi Shimbun sent a team to Korea in April 2014, but even after interviewing 40 people the newspaper was not able to verify Yoshida’s claims. Eventually, in August the same year, The Asahi Shimbun was forced to retract the stories and admit that they had not been able to “see through” Yoshida’s “fraudulent claims.”
The Way Forward
The complicated background helps explains how this singular defamation lawsuit invited scrutiny from both camps.
Politically, this issue was formally resolved in 2015, when Japan and South Korea agreed to put the issue to rest.
Historically, both Japanese and foreign historians who further researched the topic — including JAPAN Forward contributors Ikuhiko Hata and Archie Miyamoto — have found no evidence for the forcible mobilization of Korean women by the Japanese government.
However, in practice, the issue is still raised regularly by journalists and activists alike. A recent example is the severing of sister city relations between the cities of Osaka and San Francisco after the latter erected a comfort women memorial statue. Osaka took this step after Mayor Hirofumi Yomiura complained that the memorial contained biased and inaccurate information, but that his attempts to voice his concerns with his American counterpart were left unanswered.
The fact that debates on inaccuracies regarding this topic occur at such a high level testifies to the long road ahead for people fighting for the truth.
In this context, Yoshiko Sakurai defended herself in the press conference against being labeled a revisionist. She might have to do it many times more. In the meantime, the battle for the truth continues.
Author: Arielle Busetto