One of the uglier aspects of Japanese politics is played out every day in front of the headquarters of Asahi Shimbun, arguably the country’s top newspaper.
Dozens – often hundreds – of right-wing activists coalesce, with loudspeakers galore, to intimidate reporters and staff personnel trying to go about their work.
An intense, ultra-right internet community backs them up.
The vitriol is inflammatory, nasty, and way off base.
The argument: Asahi is somehow anti-Japan, and perhaps even traitorous because of an alleged pro-China and pro-Korea bias. The Asahi should be shut down; cease publication.
One consistent line of attack is that Asahi somehow created a myth of “comfort women,” an organized system of sexual servitude established in East Asia during the 1930’s and 1940s’s to pleasure Japan’s Imperial armed forces.
The paper recently retracted a story published more than 20 years ago recounting what turned out to be false testimony from a Japanese man who claimed to have coerced upwards of 200 Korean women into wartime sexual slavery.
The retraction has increased the accusations that Asahi invented the “comfort women” issue. In an interview with Sankei on August 9, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined in the criticism of Asahi, and said the paper’s retraction of a 20 year-old story shows that the first Abe Cabinet was correct in 2007 when it denied that the military coerced women into the “comfort women” system.
Abe’s comments seem certain to further worsen Japan’s ties with South Korea.
The attacks on Asahi have intensified since Shinzo Abe returned as prime minister in late 2012. Abe promotes a “revisionist” view of history that rejects the 1995 Murayama Statement, in which Japan took responsibility for its aggression in World War II, and the 1993 Kono Statement, in which Japan acknowledged that the Imperial military forces in World War II were culpable in creating and fostering the “comfort women” system.
Abe claims to “abide by” the Kono Statement, but he has consistently worked to undermine the statement.
Asahi is seen by the right in Japan as the leading voice of “defeatism,” the main media organization that helped surrender Japan’s sovereignty to an American-led occupation that imposed on Japan a self-hating, defeatist culture in the postwar era.
The intimidating demonstrators are a threat to free speech in the midst of an open society. At this point, the threat is subtle and merely bully-like, but hostile and menacing nonetheless. Promotion and toleration of aggressive behavior against a leading media organization amounts to mugging liberal journalism, which has a rich tradition in modern Japan. Journalism is a (perhaps the) backbone of civil society in the country.
Thus, the battering of Asahi is cause for concern.
No one in Asahi will comment on this. Numerous efforts to speak with Asahi reporters and executives were denied. The paper seems to think that all of this will pass; they apparently are looking long term.
They may be right. Japan is a vibrant democracy. But a few words in defense of the paper are in order.
An objective assessment shows that Asahi has done a solid job on defense issues, and is not fixated on tailoring coverage to reflect any kind of pacifist agenda.
Asahi has carefully covered the “collective self-defense” issue, which Prime Minister Abe has once again made his priority.
Abe promised to focus on economic reform, but it’s now apparent that his agenda all along – going back to his 2006-2007 stint in office – has been to regain for Japan a sovereignty that he believes was unjustly lost at the end of World War II.
For Abe, that means neutering Article 9 of the Constitution.
Asahi has an excellent staff in Tokyo and Washington that covers national security issues. The paper has printed lengthy interviews with American officials fully in support of “collective self-defense,” which probably made the paper’s editorial board quite unhappy.
Judging by the paper’s coverage, it seems clear that there is a firewall between Asahi’s editorial board and the news department. That is one of the defining qualities of a world-class news organization.
Asahi’s editorials were decidedly against Abe and his promotion of an expanded view of the Constitution’s Articile 9 peace clause. But the news department has provided top-notch coverage of the continuing debate over the content and implications of Abe’s agenda.
Few politicians have come to the defense of the paper. Abe's supporters make up a good portion of the daily anti-Asahi demonstrators.
Asahi’s recent acknowledgement of sloppy reporting 20 years ago has given some energy to those in Japan who have never acknowledged the wartime military’s role in rounding up women for military-run “service stations.”.
Abe and his co-thinkers hate the 1993 “Kono Statement,” in which Japan acknowledged that Imperial Army outfits played an important role in entangling unwilling women in a structured system of sexual servitude.
“Comfort Women” is a callous euphemism for the forced internment of thousands of women throughout East Asia during Japan’s misguided, ill-considered, and ultimately disastrous attempt to create an empire in the region.
The evidence is overwhelming that wartime Japanese military authorities were fully aware of, and involved in, an imperial brothel network.
Prime Minister Abe and his supporters argue that every country in war has resorted to similar tactics.
Indeed, there are women in South Korea now suing their own government for allegedly having made sexual services readily available to American troops during the Korean War.
But is that the source of the Japanese honor that Abe contends he wants to revive? Everybody did it? Is that a reservoir of pride for Japan to draw on?
In his haste to promote patriotism, Abe denies the past, as if this will somehow provide a vision for the future.
Asahi acknowledges that 20 years ago, it got snookered by a fraud.
Did Asahi invent the “comfort women” issue?
Of course not; this kind of accusation would normally be dismissed as silly.
But it has won some traction in Japan, with editors from the mainstream Yomiuri and the right-leaning Sankei joining in the chorus of attacks on Asahi.
A look back at coverage 20 years ago shows that in some instances Asahi was sloppy, naïve, and perhaps ideologically driven to believe an account about “comfort women” that turns out to have been falsified.
At the time, both Yomiuri and Sankei went with the same reports.
It was only later that the latter two papers found that they too were snookered.
Asahi – much too late – has now acknowledged its mistake.
But that does not negate Asahi’s essential editorial points that Japan should take responsibility for World War II aggression, and for having coerced thousands of women into sexual servitude.
More importantly, a spotlight should shine on the work of Asahi’s pioneering reporters, especially Katsuichi Honda and Yoshibumi Wakamiya, who separately provided methodical accounts of the huge transgressions of Japan’s imperial forces in China during the war years.
For Ahe and other historical revisionists, denial of the Nanjing Massacre and denial of coerced sexual servitude are keys to ending postwar defeatism in Japan,
Ironically, it was Asahi’s Wakamiya, and Yomiuri’s top gun Tsuneo Watanabe, who came together in the 1990s to provide a centrist-liberal joint account of war responsibility in Japan. A 2006 book initiated by Yomiuri’s Watanabe – “Who Was Responsible?” – provides a gripping account of Japan’s disastrous run down the road of World War II self-destruction. Most of the research was conducted by an in-house Yomiuri team of reporters: the “Yomiuri Shimbun War Responsibility Reexamination Committee.”
Has Yomiuri suddenly forgotten about the Wakamiya-Watanabe collaboration?
Japan’s rightists occasionally go after Yomiuri; Watanabe and his appointed committee gave them plenty of ammunition. But Asahi remains the prime focus of rightist rage.
Watanabe remains a critic of the divisive Yasukuni Shrine, and is a proponent of building a secular national monument to Japan’s war-dead.
Asahi is not perfect. The paper’s editorial board takes stances that are legitimate fuel for debate. But the company is far from a monolithic bastion of leftist views. The paper is filled with good reporters who possess a wide-range of opinions.
It is to Japan’s own detriment that the current government in Tokyo has yet to find the wisdom to fully acknowledge the country’s misdeeds in World War II, and to seek genuine reconciliation with a South Korea that should be a natural strategic partner.
Asahi did not invent the “comfort women” issue. But Yomiuri and Sankei are exploiting a big reporting mistake Asahi made 20 years ago to promote a revisionist view of history that only works against Japan’s national interests.