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“Asahi Shimbun” Coverage of the Comfort Women Issue Through the Years

On August 5, 2014, the Asahi Shimbun ran an article assessing its past coverage of the comfort women issue, admitting many factual errors including the 32-year-old testimony of Yoshida Seiji. What came to light through this article, however, was not so much the truth about comfort women as the mutually skewed debate in both Japan and South Korea, which share a peculiar postwar history.

Facts Unchanged by Asahi’s Assessment

One thing needs to be made clear at the outset: wartime “comfort women” did in fact exist across Asia during World War II, with the involvement of Japan and the Japanese military. It is also undeniably true that there were numerous instances of local women in war zones being forced into sexual service under threat of military violence. In this respect, their plight is no different from the violence perpetrated by occupation forces in other wars.

The emphasis here, though, is on “war zones.” The comfort women system itself was simply an incarnation of Japan’s officially approved system of managed prostitution taken to areas occupied by the Japanese military. (Japan abolished its managed prostitution system in 1958.) The majority of comfort women consisted of Japanese women in mainland Japan, as well as women in Korea and Taiwan, which were annexed to Japan at the time. Managed prostitution was no less than officially sanctioned human trafficking, and there is no question that it grossly violated the human rights of those subject to it. But this human rights violation was altogether different from coercion in war zones, which is a war crime.

South Korea has been highly vocal against Japan on the issue of comfort women in recent years, the gist of the criticism being that it was a war crime. But Japan has not waged war on the Korean Peninsula since its 1894–95 war with Qing-dynasty China. It has not, moreover, fought a single modern war with countries of the Korea Peninsula.

A Hoax Created by Yoshida Seiji

Yoshida Seiji. (© Yomiuri Shimbun/Aflo)

Be that as it may, the comfort women issue is still treated as a war crime in South Korea, as it also was in Japan up until a certain point. One factor underpinning this is a lie: the testimony of a man by the name of Yoshida Seiji (1913–2000). Yoshida claimed to have worked during World War II as a labor mobilization manager at the Shimonoseki branch of the Yamaguchi Prefecture Rōmu Hōkokukai, an organization that oversaw day laborers. He published two books in the 1980s, in which he wrote that he had “hunted out” roughly 200 young women on Jeju Island during wartime. Years later, when the issue blew up, reporters, historians, and even Korean researchers conducted surveys on the island to confirm the facts, but none of them was able to find evidence or testimony supporting his account.

If this were the whole story, Yoshida’s tale would have faded into oblivion without gaining much public attention. But as fate would have it, the Asahi Shimbun—Japan’s most influential newspaper since before the war—wrote up the testimony in an article in 1982. “Comfort women hunting” in the Korean Peninsula thus made Korean headlines and became a central issue in the country’s criticism of Japan.

Things were further complicated by the way that the Asahi mixed up joshi teishintai (women’s volunteer corps), in which Japanese citizens were gathered to volunteer their labor during the war, with comfort women. Women’s volunteer corps existed throughout Japan and its territories, primarily in schools. This led to widespread discourse based on the assumption that “comfort stations” were highly common.

Summary of the Asahi Assessment of Its Comfort Women Coverage

1. Existence of coercive recruitment
Regarding the September 2, 1982, article in the Osaka morning edition about “comfort women hunting” on Jeju Island, which was based on the testimony of Yoshida Seiji, and the description in an editorial on January 12, 1992, that women were “solicited or forcibly taken away as volunteer corps”:

In Korea and Taiwan, which were under Japanese colonial rule, prostitution rings were able to deceptively recruit large numbers of women with promises of good work, and no records have been found of the Japanese military systematically abducting women for sexual purposes. In regions occupied by the Japanese army, including Indonesia, records indicating that the military carted off local women have been confirmed. In both cases, the women were forced into service against their will.

2. Yoshida Seiji’s testimony about “comfort women hunting” on Jeju Island
Regarding having run 16 articles based on Yoshida’s testimony since becoming the first major media outlet to take up the testimony:

Asahi conducted additional research on Jeju Island but was unable to obtain information corroborating Yoshida’s testimony. Judging the testimony to have been false, it retracted the articles.

3. 1992 article and political intent
Regarding the criticism that the January 11, 1992, story on a document indicating military involvement in comfort stations was timed to coincide with Prime Minister Miyazawa’s visit to Korea:

There was no such intention, and Asahi ran the article five days after learning the details. Meanwhile, the government had been notified of the document’s existence prior to the article being printed.

4. Confusion of volunteer corps with comfort women
Regarding the 1991–92 articles stating that comfort women from the Korean Peninsula were forcibly recruited under the pretext of joining the joshi teishintai (women’s volunteer corps):

Joshi teishintai refers to the joshi kinrō teishintai (women’s volunteer labor corps), which mobilized women to work in munitions factories and other locations during the war, and is completely distinct from comfort women. Some of the reference materials used by the reporters also confused the two, resulting in misuse of the term.

5. Background of the August 11, 1991, article on the first testimony by a former comfort woman
Regarding allegations that the article, which preceded Korean media coverage, was somehow biased, because its writer was related to a senior member of a Korean organization supporting lawsuits by former comfort women:

What prompted the story was information provided by the chief of the Seoul bureau of the time, and there was no intentional distortion of facts.

The Tide-Turning Coverage of January 1992

Coverage along these lines reached a climax around the time of Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi’s visit to South Korea in January 1992. The previous year, a former comfort woman had come forward for the first time and sued the Japanese government. As with the Yoshida testimony, Asahi wrote up the story ahead of Korean media. In the midst of the commotion, just days before Miyazawa left for Korea, Asahi reported on a document suggesting that the Japanese military and public agencies had facilitated the transportation of comfort women to “comfort stations.” The prime minister was obliged to repeatedly apologize during his visit, and the next year Chief Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yōhei released a statement regarding the comfort women issue. (Although the statement acknowledged the existence of comfort women, public-sector involvement in operating comfort facilities, and coercion in war zones, it made no mention of coercion in Korea.) Other media organs began following in Asahi’s footsteps.

With the government being forced into action, the articles to date quickly came under scrutiny, the outcome being that Yoshida’s testimony had no basis in fact and that the volunteer corps and comfort women had been mixed up. From August 1992 onward, Japanese media refrained from coverage based on the testimony. But they neither retracted nor corrected past articles.

Japan and Korea in Deadlock

The situation further escalated, even as the media fell silent on the subject. In 1996 Radhika Coomaraswamy submitted an addendum to her report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, taking up Yoshida’s testimony as evidence. Seven Korean former comfort women came under domestic attack for accepting reparations from the Asian Women’s Fund, an organization set up by Japanese government initiative to compensate former comfort women across Asia, and were later cut off from government support. Even today, the overwhelming attitude in South Korea is that they cannot accept reparations or apologies unless Korean comfort women are treated as victims of coercion in war zones and not along the lines of the Kōno Statement.

The Korean stance was publicized in the United States in a campaign led by Korean Americans, culminating in a 2007 resolution by the House of Representatives condemning Japan. In March 2007 Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, then in his first term, had remarked that “there was coercion of these women in the broad sense, but not in the narrow sense”—in other words, that comfort women existed in Korea as a product of human trafficking, but that there had been no coercion on the direct part of the Japanese military. This only earned him the reputation of a historical revisionist from both the government and people of the United States.

The Japanese government, for its part, could not possibly provide a response above and beyond that of the Kōno Statement, which would entail acknowledging Yoshida’s “lie” as fact. And so Japanese-Korean relations fell into an impasse with no foreseeable way out.

Syngman Rhee’s Myth of Wartime Victory over Japan

Koreans did not actually start out with a sense of victimhood regarding the issue of wartime comfort women. If highly criminal acts had in fact been committed, Korea would have raised the issue immediately after the war, as the Netherlands did in the postwar trials of Class B and C war criminals. In reality, it was not until the 1980s that “coerced comfort women” came to be talked about, and only after testimony and media reports came out in Japan.

Once the image of wartime women forced into sexual slavery was set forth, however, it spread immediately. South Korea had good reason to embrace the image.

The state of South Korea was born as a consequence of the former Japanese territory of Korea being divided at the end of World War II. Both North and South Korea came into being because the Empire of Japan fell, not because they won independence with their own hands. But with both countries being exclusivist in nature, the Korean War broke out, and a long and fierce clash of national identities has continued since then.

Early on, the North had the upper hand in this conflict. North Korea has its origins in a resistance movement based in the Yanbian district of Jilin, Manchuria, after Japan’s annexation of Korea. Led by anti-Japanese partisan groups with the backing of the Communist Party of China, this movement claimed to be the true leaders of independence. The predecessor of South Korea, meanwhile, was the provisional Korean government, which aligned itself with the Kuomintang government of China. Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, was also president of the provisional government. This government in exile formed an armed force known as the Korean Liberation Army during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45, but this force never fully functioned and did not actually engage in battle against Japan. Nor did the government ever win the formal recognition of the international community. Moreover, the Kuomintang government, its sponsor, lost the civil war with the Communists, which supported North Korea, and retreated from the mainland to Taiwan in 1949.

Nonetheless, in the Korean War over unification of the peninsula, the South Korean administration of Syngman Rhee held firmly to the line of its “history of resistance against Japan.” Accordingly, it asked to be invited to the San Francisco Peace Conference of September 1951 between Japan and the Allied powers and other members of the international community, as well as to be included as a signatory of the treaty. In short, it demanded that the international community acknowledge South Korea as a victor over Japan in World War II. The Allies refused, but South Korea continued to conduct itself as a victor, both at home and abroad.

Unreasonable Comparisons with Germany

The echoes of Rhee’s myth live on to this day. South Korean critics of Japan, whether politicians, organizations, or the media, almost invariably compare Japan with Germany. Regarding the territorial dispute over Takeshima, in particular, they have repeatedly brought up the German-Polish Border Treaty, suggesting that Japan follow Germany’s example. In the treaty, signed at the time of its reunification in 1990, Germany settled its border dispute with Poland and relinquished the rights of German refugees to make territorial claims.

In truth, drawing a parallel between South Korea and Poland is a stretch. Poland had undisputedly been at war with Germany and was, moreover, a direct victim of Nazi war crimes. But South Korea, as noted above, was never at war with Japan during World War II. Whether residents liked it or not, the Korean Peninsula was part of Japan at the time. South Korea thus had a good motive or psychological basis for wanting to present itself as a country that had warred with Japan, and the issue of “coerced comfort women” gave it a way to be seen in the same light as wartime Poland or the territories later occupied by the Soviet Union.

  • [2015.05.01]
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