Tokyo, Japan – With more than two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives and a majority in the House of Councillors, the ruling coalition that backs Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is firmly in control of the legislative process.
The influential government bureaucracy, too, is much more comfortable with the Abe administration than it ever was with the relatively short-lived Democratic Party of Japan that preceded it. Additionally, the big business community, represented by Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, has just come under the leadership of a close Abe ally, and has announced it will resume direct financial contributions to the ruling party.
It is against this background that a campaign of intimidation has been launched against the major liberal and moderate media outlets.
At the top of the hit list was NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster. Prime Minister Abe had long been dissatisfied with NHK’s coverage of controversial issues.
|Japan’s liberal media is facing increased criticism [AP]|
In a murky incident in early 2001, NHK produced a documentary about an NGO-sponsored event examining the brutality of the wartime Japanese Imperial Army against the “comfort women” – the predominantly but not exclusively Asian women who were compelled, tricked, or otherwise induced into working in “comfort stations” where they provided sexual services for the troops.
As many as 200,000 women from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere were forced into brothels for use by Japanese soldiers in territories occupied by Japan during World War II, according to many mainstream historians.
Shortly before the documentary was to go on air, the senior management of NHK quite unusually demanded that major cuts be made to the programme. Years later, it emerged in the course of a lawsuit that Abe – who was then serving as deputy chief cabinet secretary – had personally intervened and ordered NHK executives to alter the documentary before it was broadcast.
It was therefore not surprising that when Abe, now Japan’s prime minister, had his chance to appoint a new NHK chairman, he turned to a man who shared his right-wing revisionist views on wartime history. Unfortunately for Abe, the man he picked – Katsuto Momii – also happened to lack the discretion and common sense to keep his mouth shut in public.
At his inaugural press conference as NHK chief in January of this year, Momii used the opportunity to launch a defence of the comfort women system, explaining it was only wrong according to “today’s morality”. He added that, in any case, such a system of sexual violence is “common to any country at war”, and therefore Japan should not be singled out for special blame. Momii also explained his editorial philosophy on diplomatic and territorial questions by noting “it wouldn’t do for NHK to say ‘left’ while the government says ‘right'”.
In case his message wasn’t clear, on his first day at work Momii also demanded that all senior NHK executives must submit resignation letters to him, which he would keep in his personal drawer for use against them at any time.
Momii’s words and actions created a flurry of criticism and outrage. Normally, a storm of that magnitude would lead to a resignation. But with Abe’s firm support, Momii remains the NHK chairman today.
On August 5, a new round of controversy exploded. The Asahi Shimbun, long regarded as the flagship newspaper of Japanese liberal opinion, formally retracted 16 articles it had published about the comfort women issue from 1982 to 1997.
We don't need this kind of newspaper in Japan, and our movement is calling for it to stop publishing altogether.
The retracted articles were based on the testimony of Seiji Yoshida, a man who had made sensational claims that he had organised the comfort women system for the Japanese military stationed on Jeju Island. Independent investigations had largely discredited his testimony long ago, but the Asahi Shimbun declined to set the record straight until it began to be pounded on an almost daily basis by the rejuvenated right of the Abe era.
During a November 2012 debate between party leaders – about a month before Abe’s landslide election victory returned him to power after an interval of five years – he made an unprovoked reference to the issue.
“The Asahi Shimbun has spread the misinformation of fraudsters like Seiji Yoshida and made them out as if they told the truth, and in transmitting this misinformation throughout Japan, they have made the problem larger and larger.”
If the managing editors of the Asahi Shimbun believed that belatedly coming clean about the Yoshida testimony would restore their journalistic credibility, the political effect has been precisely the opposite. Government ministers and the conservative media have gleefully jumped on the admission as the ultimate proof that the liberal newspaper has been knowingly deceiving the public.
“From our defeat in war until the current day, they have just fabricated history and transmitted lies,” said Satoru Mizushima, leader of the grassroots right-wing group Gambare Nippon. “We don’t need this kind of newspaper in Japan, and our movement is calling for it to stop publishing altogether.”
On Saturday, a protest was held outside of the Asahi Shimbun headquarters in Tokyo, in which scores of activists called for the elimination of the newspaper.
“What they say about comfort women is a total fabrication … absolute lies,” one male protester insisted. A female demonstrator wearing a traditional kimono added, “They are making Japan out to be a bad country in the eyes of the whole world.”
Many international observers do not agree with that view.
“The shame lies in what the Japanese Imperial Army actually did during the World War in China, Korea, and other countries. You can’t blame the Asahi for things that actually happened,” said Carsten Germis, correspondent for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Germis also has little patience for the argument that Yoshida’s fraudulent testimony casts doubt on the broader evidence about the treatment of comfort women.
“What I always tell my Japanese colleagues is, can we imagine that some German politician could say the same, that there is some false statement about concentration camps or the Holocaust, and so it didn’t happen? Or that the Second World War was a war of self-defence, because Anglo-Saxon powers surrounded Germany?
“If this were to happen I think there would be much more international uproar,” said Germis.
Follow Michael Penn on Twitter: @ShingetsuNews