In August, the Asahi Shimbun retracted thirty years worth of stories about comfort women when they realized their source, Yoshida Seiji, was not reliable after a review of his testimony. Yoshida Seiji approached the Asahi in 1982 when he claimed that as an army officer in the 1940s he was personally responsible for taking Korean women from Jeju Island to serve the Japanese Army. After citing Yoshida’s testimony sixteen times over thirty years, Asahi editorial re-examined Yoshida’s accounts, determined they are not verifiable and issued retractions.
There is a lot wrong with this story, on the part of the Asahi and other parties. The Asahi should have worked harder to verify Yoshida’s story sooner. After the Yoshida testimonies were first published, the Asahi became Japan’s standard-bearer for the cause of coming to terms with wartime history. Now their reputation is hurt, and the Japanese political right, including the Prime Minister, can use the Asahi’s mistakes to protect their own position. Consequently, the big worry for historians is that the Yoshida controversy will fuel the revisionists, who would like to downplay or outright deny wartime atrocities. Ironically, the Asahi’s own review was inspired by the revisionsists.
The current Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo called for a review of the Kono Statement of 1993 when Abe assumed office two years ago. The Kono Statement was a formal apology made by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei, acknowledging that the Japanese military was involved in recruiting women to serve in brothels, under a variety of circumstances, often through coercion. Abe Shinzo along with other Japanese conservatives have never been happy with the Kono Statement and have long called for changes. When Abe became Prime Minister again in December 2012 he proposed a formal review of the Kono Statement and appointed a five-person committee for the job, lead by eminent historian Hata Ikuhiko. Hata’s committee published a preliminary report in February 2014, and submitted their full report to the Diet in June. The review committee concluded that the Kono Statement did not need to be revised or retracted. Well, the review committee’s initial report inspired the Asahi to conduct their own review, and lead them to conclude that Yoshida Seiji’s testimony was fraudulent.
Now we get to the crux of the matter. First, the fact that the Government of Japan was thinking of messing with the Kono Statement at all was bad enough. Diplomats from China, South Korea, and the United States lodged protests against the review of the statement. China and South Korea were not even mollified by Hata’s recommendation to leave the statement as is. In the Chinese and South Korean view, there should have been no review of the Kono Statement at all. As for the Asahi, although their articles based on Yoshida Seiji’s writing have been retracted, they maintain that nothing about how we understand this history has changed. Asahi’s editors still argue that further evidence of systematic use and coercive recruitment of comfort women exists, such as the testimony of survivors. It’s good that Asahi intends to stick to its guns, but their credibility in doing so is reduced. The general public that buys newspapers has a reason to be skeptical of Asahi articles about comfort women from now on, and right-wing revisionists will certainly take advantage of this.
The only thing to be done now is let the retractions stand, and for historians to keep at their work.