ASAHI’S FAILURE TO REFLECT ON SUPREME COURT DECISION
Journalist Yoshiko Sakurai and Korean Peninsula expert Tsutomu Nishioka have been acquitted of defamation charges involving “comfort women” in court battles that lasted more than five years. The charges were filed by Takashi Uemura, a former reporter with the liberal mass-circulation Asahi Shimbun who fabricated a story about a wartime Korean “comfort woman” in the early 1990s.
Meeting for the first time since the acquittal by the Supreme Court, Sakurai and Nishioka recently exchanged views on their lengthy legal battles, sternly criticizing the ex-journalist for politicizing his case instead of resorting to the power of the pen to protect his professional integrity. The duo also condemned the Asahi for its failure to grapple squarely with the domestic and international implications of the role it has played in its “comfort women” coverage. The Supreme Court handed down its verdict for Sakurai last November and Nishioka last month, upholding the earlier rulings by district and higher courts.
In his article carried in the August 11, 1991 issue of the mass circulation national daily, Uemura willfully described the “comfort woman” as a member of the Women’s Volunteer Corps coerced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during World War II. Sakurai called it a blatant fabrication in her writings, including this column, and so did Nishioka in his Korea-related articles and books.
Uemura filed defamation charges against the duo and their publishers in 2015, demanding that financial compensation be paid for alleged damages done to his reputation. He also demanded that the publishers scrap all of the writings by Sakurai and Nishioka with references to his article in question and post apology ads in major dailies. Below is the gist of the conversation between Sakurai and Nishioka.
Sakurai: You and I agreed to wait to do a comprehensive review of our lawsuits until after the Supreme Court handed down its final decision, but it took much longer than expected. It has been five long years since Uemura sued us for defamation. How many times did you appear in court?
Nishioka: Only once. Because I basically regarded this trial as a “political campaign” in the name of a lawsuit pursued by the plaintiff, who was supported by a large number of leftwing forces, I decided not to deal with it too seriously.
Sakurai: Twice for me—first, the oral pleading in April 2016 and then the cross-examination two years later, in March 2018. Experiencing the atmosphere of the Grand Bench at the Supreme Court, I fully came to grips with how leftwing supporters had organized themselves to pursue their “comfort women” campaign.
Nishioka: What struck me as odd first and foremost was the overwhelming number of defense lawyers intimidating us by sitting side by side in a row on Uemura’s side.
Sakurai: I saw probably more than 30 of them sitting next to each other in two to three rows in the court sessions I attended.
Nishioka: I had only two lawyers sitting next to me. They were asked to defend me by my publishers.
Sakurai: The strange thing was that I was sued in Sapporo, Hokkaido—not in Tokyo, where I live and where my publishers are located. The Uemura side did have lawyers based in Tokyo, too. We asked the district court to transfer our trial to Tokyo, which I thought would be a sensible thing to do. At one point, the Sapporo District Court did consent to the transfer but quickly faced objections from Uemura’s side—on the contention that transferring the case to Tokyo would deprive him of his right to access to courts due to financial reasons, because Sapporo at the time was the base for his day-to-day life as a college instructor. And he objected to the transfer by collecting signatures from his supporters. Responding to this move, the court ultimately decided against the transfer while Uemura himself was busy elsewhere, doing lectures and attending “comfort women” gatherings in such places as Tokyo and Seoul.
Nishioka: In my case, Uemura filed the suit with a district court in Tokyo for reasons that are not clear to me. The public gallery in the court house was nearly filled with his supporters, many of them labor unionists.
Sakurai: I see what you mean. In Sapporo, my only supporter was a reporter from the conservative Sankei Shimbun who flew in from Tokyo to cover my trial. We were absolutely outnumbered. Uemura as a plaintiff spoke as though he were appealing his innocence to his supporters at a rally. Because he apparently spoke at rallies attended by his supporters before and after the trail, the words he used during the trial undeniably created the clear impression that he was engaged in a political campaign. To tell the truth, I don’t have a lot of good memories of Sapporo. I did a lecture in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture in 1997 in which I stated that “comfort women” had not been coerced into sexual servitude by the Japanese government or military. My remarks drew a fierce backlash from across the nation, with many angry protests coming from Hokkaido in particular.
Nishioka: I understand that your office was flooded with protests by mail and fax.
Sakurai: In those days without the Internet, the fax machine I had in my office daily ran out of paper as a flood of angry protests poured in. The largest number of protests from a single entity came from the Hokkaido Teachers’ Union headquartered in Sapporo. With the trial being held there, I was wary about the possibility of district court judges being influenced by popular opinion.
Nishioka: And yet the Supreme Court ultimately handed down a decision that confirmed our contentions were right. Uemura’s actions stirred up a hornet’s nest. It serves him right after refusing to face us as a journalist in open debates without going to court. He should have fought “speech with speech,” if I may say so, but he instead left the court to decide which side was right. He chose the cowardly way. As for me, I had firmly made up my mind to never budge in the interest of freedom of speech.
Court Found in Our Favor
Sakurai: As you just pointed out, Uemura’s strategy totally backfired on him, didn’t it? The court ruled that his Asahi article was a fabrication and acknowledged the authenticity of our writings. It must have been an utterly unexpected result for him and his supporters.
For the record, let us review how Uemura described the “comfort woman” in his first article which was central to the defamation trial. Headlined Korean Former Comfort Woman Breaks Silence Half Century after War,” the article states: “A Korean former ‘comfort woman’ who was taken to the battlefield against her will as a member of the so-called Women’s Volunteer Corps and coerced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military during World War II, was recently found living in Seoul…”
Sakurai and Nishioka criticize Uemura for having referred to the Women’s Volunteer Corps which was an entity committed to patriotic labor services and had absolutely nothing to do with “comfort women,” thus creating the impression that the Japanese military rounded up Korean women in a state-sponsored recruitment campaign.
Nishioka: The Supreme Court decision has important implications. For one thing, it has recognized some of the articles carried by the Asahi as having been fabricated by its own reporter. Will the daily hold itself accountable for this?
Sakurai: You are quite right. It no longer is Uemura’s personal problem at this stage. It is a problem for the Asahi itself. When I called a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo following the high court’s verdict, an Asahi reporter asked me: “Why do you attack the Asahi alone when other dailies similarly mistook members of the Women’s Volunteer Corps for ‘comfort women’ in their coverage of the news?” I answered that if the Asahi claims to be the most influential newspaper in Japan, then it is only natural to question its responsibility most stringently. Reading the report by the independent investigation committee you and your supporters compiled, I came to realize another manifest reason why the Asahi must definitely be taken to task. At the outset, the daily tried desperately to set a new trend in “comfort women” reporting in the Japanese media by publishing an overwhelming number of articles about these women. There is the undeniable fact that the daily kept running a host of articles until other dailies followed in its wake. In other words, “comfort women” coverage became a norm in the Japanese media thanks to the Asahi having taken the lead. Therefore, I believe it has a big responsibility to take the consequences.
Nishioka: In 1991 alone when Uemura first wrote the article, the Asahi carried 150 articles related to “comfort women” against just 102 for similar reports filed by three other major media outlets: 23 for the Yomiuri, 66 for the Mainichi, and 13 for NHK. The Asahi accounted for roughly 60% of the combined total—one such article every 2.4 days. Based on this fact, it is undeniable that the Asahi was waging a major campaign to promote “comfort women” articles.
Sakurai: Moreover, it was obvious that they intentionally started decreasing the number of their own “comfort women” articles as more and more competitors started covering the news. I want to emphasize at this juncture that the Asahi is extremely guilty also in that sense.
Nishioka: To set the record straight, let us review how “comfort women” coverage has evolved in Japan. In 1982, nearly a decade before Uemura fabricated the facts about the “comfort woman” in his article, the Asahi had run a series of pieces by a Japanese con man named Seiji Yoshida who claimed to have been a “comfort women” recruiter, falsely claiming that he had “rounded up young Korean women in Cheju-do under orders from the Japanese military and coerced them into sexual servitude.” The following year, Yoshida published a book based on his lies. It was the Asahi who was guilty of first sending out to the world these falsehoods that spoke of the Women’s Volunteer Corps and “comfort women” as one. The influence of the Yoshida testimony which the Asahi exploited was immense, and the story traceable to his lies that the Japanese military engaged in a massive hunt for “comfort women” to join the Women’s Volunteers Corps went on to become accepted history in leftwing academic circles starting in the mid-1980s. As someone who has experience studying South Korea at length, I feel strongly that if the Japanese military had actually recruited young Korean women in that manner, the Korean men around them—their fathers and brothers—undoubtedly would have staged a violent uprising. If such abductions had actually happened, I am of the opinion that the foundation of postwar Japan-South Korea relations would have collapsed, convincing the world that Japan had committed “crimes against humanity.” In 1991, by running the Uemura piece and having prominently taken up the Yoshida testimony twice, the Asahi successfully completed its propaganda campaign. Uemura’s was a maliciously trumped-up story that rendered further credibility to Yoshida’s lies.
Sakurai: Uemura told the court he was aware that the Women’s Volunteer Corps and “comfort women” belonged to two different groups of women. His remarks were in reply to a penetrating question by one of the judges during the closing phase of his cross examination. In other words, his remarks showed that he had known from the very beginning that his story that “comfort women” were members of the Women’s Volunteer Corps who were herded into sexual servitude—essentially wouldn’t hold. I find it difficult to understand why then he had to write that article. It really puzzles me. What you said a little while ago is very significant. Despite the false claims Yoshida made preceding the Uemura piece that the Japanese military had rounded up Korean women, most researchers and Korea experts in Japan seriously questioned the authenticity of the con man’s statements. Most Koreans also knew he was lying. They knew from their own experience that the Japanese military did not recruit young Korean women as “comfort women” for the Women’s Volunteer Corps. But the Uemura piece pointed to what seemed to be an actual example of forced recruitment—the first supposed proof of what previously was regarded as a complete fiction. So this matter came to a head in Japan and in South Korea. Media outlets other than the Asahi started vigorously covering “comfort women” from around that time. A fiction on a grandiose scale created by the Asahi took on a reality thanks to Uemura. As a result, what Uemura concocted produced truly serious consequences. I know I am repeating your words but wish to stress that bearing this scenario firmly in mind is extremely important in coming to grips with the heavy responsibility the Asahi has as regards the “comfort women” issue.
Nishioka: If Japan were to be criticized at home and abroad on the basis of what real perpetrators and victims testified in court, we would of course humbly accept that. If a victim of coercive recruitment by the Japanese authorities actually had said what was quoted by the Asahi, then it would have been a big scoop for the daily. On the contrary, the daily ran what in truth wasn’t said. The woman did not tell Uemura she was a member of the Women’s Volunteer Corps. Not only that. Uemura didn’t have a false memory of her testimony, admitting instead that he knew right from the beginning that she was not a member of the Volunteer Corps. So he made up the story. The fact that he went ahead with fabricating her remarks must seriously be taken to heart. In a series of articles probing its “comfort women” coverage in 2014, the Asahi only apologized for “having been tricked by the lies told by Yoshida,” belatedly retracting a total of 16 articles that featured him. As for the Uemura article, the daily has yet to admit that it was a fabrication, unabashedly stressing that there was “no intention whatsoever on the part of the reporter to twist his story.”
Sakurai: This trial has reminded me anew that in the end justice will be done. Because Uemura sued you and me for defamation, the fact became clear that he willfully wrote the article in which he treated “comfort women” and members of the Women’s Volunteer Corps as one, despite knowing from early on that they belonged to two different groups of women. Then evolved a situation in which, as you have pointed out, it became clear that Uemura’s problem actually is Asahi’s problem. The heavens have taken note of the Asahi’s misdeeds. I believe strongly that the Asahi must humbly accept the final verdict and sincerely reflect once again on the implications of the fabrication they were involved in. While it admits it made the mistake of engaging in “inaccurate reporting,” the Asahi is adamant about rejecting any notion that it got involved in fabricating facts. As you have explained, there’s no question what they engaged in was a blatant fabrication, no matter how one looks at it.
Betrayal of the Japanese People
Nishioka: What we can’t afford to overlook is the Asahi’s posture in reporting on the Supreme Court verdict rendered on March 12 in my favor. Its March 13 morning edition treated it in an article so small I almost couldn’t find it. Besides, they wrote more lies in that piece. In describing the background to the decision, it wrote: “As regards the assertions by Nishioka and others that Uemura’s article is a fabrication, confusing the mobilization of the Women’s Volunteer Corps by the military or the Japanese government with the trafficking of ‘comfort women,’ the Tokyo District Court recognized an important portion of their assertions as factual.” I have no problem with that, but do take issue with the passage that followed. Pointing out “flaws” in my contentions, the daily noted that the Supreme Court ultimately supported my position despite the fact that “the Tokyo High Court viewed some portions of my assertions as incorrect,” noting that Supreme Court judges nevertheless supported the verdict on the basis of “equivalence to veracity.” I take issue with this description because I cannot but conclude that the article gives the impression that the “veracity” of my assertions recognized earlier by the district court was reduced to “equivalence to veracity” in the high court.
Sakurai: So the Asahi decided to ignore the fact that the veracity of your contention was recognized by the high court. That is outrageous.
Nishioka: I think so, too. At the high court “veracity,” not “equivalence to veracity,” was recognized as regards the most important part of my contention—that “Uemura dared to claim the ‘comfort woman’ had been recruited by the Japanese military as a member of the Women’s Volunteer Corps when in fact he knew this was false. To put it rather bluntly, she was a wartime prostitute. Both the district court and the higher court reached the same conclusion on this point. But the Asahi management must have feared that, should the Supreme Court determine that Uemura’s article was a fabrication, they would have to assume ultimate responsibility. I can only surmise that the management decided to come up with yet another fiction in that small article out of fear that the readers would hold them accountable should they find out the truth. I feel very strongly that the Asahi should at least humbly accept the final judgment and express its views anew on this court case with good grace.
Sakurai: The Asahi is totally lacking in the awareness and self-reflection one would expect in a major national daily that has exerted such influence domestically and internationally through its twisted “comfort women” coverage. It has committed a gross betrayal of Japan and the Japanese people and seriously impaired public trust in journalism in this country.
Nishioka: The final ruling by the Supreme Court gave the Asahi another opportunity to reflect on its wrongdoings. But even in their reporting on the ruling they committed another fabrication—truly disgraceful.
Sakurai: There’s something I constantly keep reminding myself—that journalism is far from perfect. In the same way humans are imperfect, mistakes are committed in journalism because it is a profession human beings are engaged in. The important thing is the posture one assumes when a mistake is made. As journalists we are capable of going farther and deeper to verify facts and reflect on mistakes made. But the Asahi apparently will not even attempt to acknowledge its mistakes. With such an attitude, I am afraid it will continue to repeat the same behavior over and over.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 949 in the May 6, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)