Japan’s Leading Newspaper under Siege

Every day scores of right-wing activists gather outside the editorial offices of the Asahi Shimbun to denounce one of Japan’s two leading national newspapers. Conservatives have long objected to the newspaper’s liberal bent, but only recently have the paper’s editors given them a cudgel to beat on them for being too “pro-Chinese” and “pro-Korean.”

The newspaper is going through a rough patch as it has had to make three embarrassing apologies in as many months, as it backtracks on controversial stories, one of which dates back 20 years but has serious international implications for its relations with Korea and other Asian nations even today. The paper’s retractions concerned two of the country’s most sensitive issues, nuclear power and past militarism.

In August the newspaper retracted a story published in the early 1980s recounting the questionable testimony of one Japanese man who claimed to have coerced upwards of 200 Korean women living on the offshore island of Jeju into becoming prostitutes for the Imperial Army during World War II.

Then in September it had to retract a story it published in May based on leaked testimony from the plant manager at the time of the nuclear disaster, Masao Yoshida, claiming that workers at the site had abandoned it and fled contrary to Yoshida’s orders to stand fast.

If that weren’t enough, the paper also admitted that it had falsified an interview with the President of Nintendo. Half dozen editors and senior editors at the newspaper have been fired; the conservative press is piling on. Some question whether the paper, with its estimated 8 million readers, can ever regain its credibility.

Potentially the gravest mistake was in trusting one Seiji Yoshida’s (no relation to the nuclear plant manager) story outlined in his book My War Crimes. Although other papers picked up the story, the Asahi chose to really run with it, publishing more than a dozen articles on the subject beginning in the early 1980s until the 1990s when unbiased historians began to cast doubts on its credibility.

If nothing else it was a cautionary tale for newspapers about the dangers of building stories on a single source, although the newspaper claimed that it sent reporters to Jeju Island in order to confirm or deny Yoshida’s allegations without success.

The Asahi’s conservative rival, the Yomiuri Shimbun gleefully reported every twist and turn of the Asahi’s tribulations. Said the Yomiuri: “the report added fuel to the anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea and forms the basis of a misperception of Japan that is spreading around the world.” It also criticized the paper’s handling of the nuclear power transcripts.

Though the issues stemming from World War II happened more than 70 years ago and to an outsider have long been settled, in Japan it often seems as if they happened only yesterday. Hardly a day passes without the newspapers of all stripes publishing articles about the “comfort women” issue, using the euphemism for Asian women conscripted into army brothels by the imperial army during World War II.

The revival of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party under its right-leaning prime minister Shinzo Abe, has accelerated these controversial history issues. Last year the government toyed with the idea of renouncing the so-called “Kono Statement” of 1993, issued by the former Chief Cabinet Secretary in which Japan formally acknowledged its responsibility for recruiting comfort women.

The Yoshida misstep certainly added fuel to those in the country who want to have the government renounce the Kono statement (not to mention other apologies that Tokyo has made over the years). Conservatives consider the comfort women issue an undeserved libel on its soldiers.

Given his strong conservative bent, the prime minister would probably be happy to do that if it were up to him entirely, but as a responsible national leader he has to consider the impact with neighbors, especially South Korea. It is not too far-fetched to believe that renouncing the Kono Statement could lead Seoul to break diplomatic relations and be a huge headache for American diplomacy in East Asia.

In May the Asahi ran a story it must have thought was a global scoop, that at the height of the nuclear disaster some 90 percent of the work force fled the site, ignoring or willfully disobeying the plant chief. The story went global with The New York Times picking it up under the headline: “Panicked Workers Fled Fukushima Plant in 2011 Despite Orders.”

The story was based on a leaked partial version of Yoshida’s hours of testimony before a parliamentary commission investigating the accident, which the government had agreed to keep confidential at Yoshida’s request. In September, it reversed itself and released the full transcript, saying that Yoshida’s fear that his actions would be misinterpreted were warranted by the leak.

Once the full text was made public, it became quickly apparent that the incident was less dramatic and more complicated than the Asahi story had indicated. Yoshida said that he feared an explosion in one unit might endanger the work force and advised non-essential people to move to less threatened parts of the plant site.

Many interpreted this to mean moving to the undamaged Fukushima Daini nuclear plant site only about 10 km (six miles) away. Yoshida said on reflection he thought they did the right thing. As the threat to Unit 2 receded, most of the workers who moved to the other plant returned, augmented by workers from other plant sites and Tokyo firemen.

After sticking to its story for months, the Asahi on Sept. 15 retracted, issued an apology and sacked its executive editor. The paper is now setting up an outside panel to impartially examine what went wrong on the comfort women issue and others.