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A ‘beautiful’ Japan in the eye of the media beholder

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In Brief

The Japanese media has been set alight by the debate on Japan’s use of 'comfort women' — a euphemism referring to the women used for sex by the Japanese Army in World War II. The furore began in August when Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s premier liberal newspaper, admitted that a source used in a number of articles it published on comfort women had fabricated his story.


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That source was Seiji Yoshida, a soldier who claimed to have been involved in the capture of 200 women in South Korea during the war. Yoshida’s testimony had long been questioned, most prominently by the historian Ikuhiko Hata and the right-wing newspaper Sankei Shimbun.

Unsurprisingly, the right-wing press, politicians and commentators have jumped on this opportunity to score points against the Asahi. Critics argue that the paper’s reporting on comfort women has damaged Japan’s international standing. According to the Asahi’s right-of-centre rival, Yomiuri Shimbun, the articles ‘became a basis of misperception of Japan spreading through the world’.

Two events in particular attract the ire of conservatives. The first is the ‘Kono Statement’ of 1993, in which chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged the existence of comfort women, who were recruited at the behest of the Japanese military, and who ‘lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere’. The second is a 1996 report on violence against women compiled by UN special rapporteur Radhika Coomaraswamy, which suggested Japan consider symbolic compensation for former comfort women.

The current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a well-known comfort women sceptic, also believes the Asahi articles damaged Japan’s ‘honour around the world’. Indeed, since the Asahi retractions the Abe government has (unsuccessfully) lobbied the UN to change Coomaraswamy’s report. There have also been calls to revise the Kono Statement.

Meanwhile a widespread ultranationalist campaign to boycott the Asahi and bully universities that employ ex-Asahi journalists has been underway. The campaign claimed an important scalp in November with the resignation of the Asahi’s President Tadakazu Kimura. And, after receiving threatening letters and phone calls from ultranationalists, Hokusai Gakuen University have announced they will not renew the contract of a former Asahi journalist who wrote articles on comfort women. Many scholars working in Japan are currently expressing real concerns over academic freedom of speech.

Even before the Asahi retraction, conservative critics have tried to dismiss the comfort women issue. When doing so they tend to make two related arguments.

The first questions whether the Japanese army can be said to have coerced the comfort women. Conservative critics admit that the Japanese army made use of prostitutes from their colonies, but argue that the women were recruited by middlemen, and as such the Japanese army cannot be accused of coercion. But this argument rests on a very narrow understanding of coercion. Even if it is acknowledged that comfort women were recruited by middlemen (and this is not at all clear), it does not change the fact that the recruitment took place within the context of Japanese colonial expansion through Asia. Oral testimony from Japanese soldiers also repudiates these conservative assertions.

Second, critics argue there is a lack of documentary evidence for the existence of comfort women. This point, as Japanese historian Chizuko Ueno has argued, concerns what counts as proper historical evidence. Critics demand documentation that proves that the Japanese army coerced women into prostitution. But despite a government investigation in 1992 turning up a slew of documents showing Japanese involvement in setting up comfort stations and the archival work of historians such as Yoshiaki Yoshimi, critics deny conclusive evidence of coercion exists. There is of course a large body of oral testimony from comfort women themselves, but critics dismiss their evidence as biased or fabricated. Unfortunately, the Asahi retractions only reinforce the view that oral testimonials cannot be trusted.

The debate over comfort women is also symbolic of Japan’s domestic tussle over the interpretation of wartime, and post-war, history.

For some conservatives the comfort women issue is a component of a sustained campaign by the liberal left, and its mouthpiece the Asahi Shimbun, to maintain a ‘masochistic’ vision of Japan’s wartime experience that damages Japan’s sense of national pride. Furthermore, this view of history helps legitimise the post-war constitution and more specifically Article 9, with which Japan renounces the right to use force to settle international disputes. The idea is that if the factual basis for this history can be challenged then Japan can break free from the shadow of the war and become a ‘normal’ nation: able to remember its war dead with pride, feel good about the past, and to project hard power into the world. To use Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s words, Japan could once again be a beautiful country. But beautiful for whom?

Certainly not for international observers who view this round of factual nit-picking as yet more evidence of Japan’s lack of contrition and inability to embrace fully the norms and values of the international community. Certainly not for victims of Japan’s wartime aggression for whom semantic debates on the exact definition of coercion could not be further divorced from their concrete experience of suffering and abuse. And sadly not for the plurality of voices in Japan’s democracy, for the Japanese who are working hard to foster positive links between Japan and its former colonies, and for those whose good work is damaged by the volume and reach of increasingly shrill right-wing voices.

Chris Perkins is a lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

3 responses to “A ‘beautiful’ Japan in the eye of the media beholder”

  1. It has been reported in the SSJ forum that the contract of the former Asahi reporter has in fact been renewed.

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