[INTERVIEW] Why Japanese media won't cover comfort women issues

Asia's Tech News Daily

[INTERVIEW] Why Japanese media won't cover comfort women issues

Takashi Uemura in a scene from Shinji Nishijima’s documentary “Target” / Courtesy of BIFF

By Kwak Yeon-soo

Filmmaker Shinji Nishijima was a Korea correspondent for TBS-JNN when Kim Hak-sun, a former comfort woman, broke the silence and testified about Japan operating an organized military brothel program during the World War II.

One of his colleagues, The Asahi Shimbun correspondent Takashi Uemura, first reported on Kim’s testimony on August 11, 1991, three days before the victim told her story at a press conference.

More than 20 years later, the truth-seeking reporter became the target of Japan’s right wing activists, scholars and journalists.

In 2014, right-wing tabloids accused him of fabricating his 1991 report on women being forcibly taken to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. They branded him a traitor and threatened to kill his family.

Uemura, who retired from journalism to start a teaching job at a university, lost his position due to mounting complaints from haters. His teenage daughter’s photo and personal information were exposed online. He separated from his family as he was left with no choice but to move to Korea as visiting professor at the Catholic University.

The threats extended to Uemura’s former workplace, The Asahi Shimbun, representative of Japan’s left-leaning newspaper. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-leaning government publicly criticized the daily, accusing it of spreading fake news on comfort women.

Nishijima who had interviewed Kim in a similar period and filed a similar story, thought it was strange that Uemura, among Japanese reporters who interviewed Kim, became the only target of criticism. So he decided to unearth the case and make a documentary about it.

[INTERVIEW] Why Japanese media won't cover comfort women issues

Filmmaker Shinji Nishijima / Courtesy of BIFF

“If Uemura is a fake reporter, I should be called a fake reporter as well. A news reporter who tried to tell the truth became a target of criticism and the deadly attack against him continues today.” he said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.

He blamed the government for siding with far-right nationalists and standing at the forefront of the conspiracy movement to cover up the truth about the comfort women.

“I think the comfort women issue is not properly reported in Japan, because there is increasing pressure from the government to avoid reporting on the subject. People who raise their voice against the government are vulnerable to attacks by the nationalists,” he said.

Nishijima looks into the year of 1997 when Abe founded the nationalist “Institute of Junior Assembly Members Who Think About the Outlook of Japan and History Education” and led the “Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform.”

The reform eventually gave permission to publishers to play down Japan’s atrocious acts during World War II and revise the language describing women forced into sexual slavery by imperial Japan.

Nishijima notes that this revisionist act came just four years after the Japanese government’s 1993 apology for the wartime coercion of women into prostitution. The conservatives were quick to erase the portrayal of imperial Japan that they considered too negative.

“There is a movement in Japan where people try to pretend that historical matters that are unflattering to Japan never happened. Abe took The Asahi Shinbun’s problems to intimidate other media into self-censorship,” he said.

For his new documentary, “Target,” Nishijima interviewed supporters of Uemura. Asked why he didn’t interview right-wing figures who attacked the former Asahi Shimbun journalist’s reports as “fabrication,” the director said he wanted to simplify the thematic message in the film.

“I thought about interviewing both sides to have equal say about the comfort women issue, but I worried that I wouldn’t be able to deliver my message clearly. My intention was not to inform the audience about the controversy surrounding the comfort women issue, but to raise the question of whether political attacks on an individual is fair,” he said.

Uemura sued Yoshiko Sakurai, a journalist and comfort women denier who claimed that the Asahi Shimbun report was fabricated. More than 100 lawyers in the Hokkaido region came forward to defend the former Asahi reporter and the activists raised money for his court fees.

However, Japan’s highest court dismissed his case of defamation last year, upholding earlier court rulings. Uemura’s suits against Sakurai and publishers were initiated in 2015.

In 2018, a Sapporo district court ruled that Sakurai’s editorials damaged Uemura’s reputation, but didn’t defame him. In 2019, the Tokyo District Court acknowledged he was defamed by the publisher of the weekly magazine, “Shukan Bunshun,” and a scholar, but rejected his claim of damages.

[INTERVIEW] Why Japanese media won't cover comfort women issues

Video footage of the late Kim Hak-sun, a former comfort woman, is on display at an exhibition held in Kyoto, Japan, in this July 24 file photo. The “Statue of Peace,” representing comfort women, was also exhibited there. Yonhap

Nishijima expressed discontent against the decision made by the court, alleging political interference. As a former journalist, he also expressed deep concern about politicians using their power to manipulate public opinion and making the comfort women issue a taboo subject.

“I think it’s outrageous to regulate media out of fear of receiving complaints from the public when its past atrocities are revealed. This kind of self-censorship among reporters, who refuse to cover comfort women issues because their companies might lose a prime sponsor, was a dangerous precedent for the war or state of emergency,” he said.

He also urged the Japanese government to approach the comfort women issue as a humanitarian matter and not as a post-war compensation issue.

“I think restoring the victims’ honor is the primary concern. But the Japanese conservatives believe they should restore their honor. They are wrong. What really needs to be recovered is the dignity of the comfort women victims, not the perpetrators,” Nishijima said.

The journalist-turned-filmmaker said he hopes to release the film in Japan so that he can inform and inspire the film’s audiences about the neglected issue.

“While filming, many nationalists pressured me to halt filming, calling it a disgrace. However, they couldn’t stop me from completing this film. I hope this documentary will hit theaters in Japan maybe around the end of this year or early next year,” he said.

“Target” had its world premiere at the 26th Busan International Film Festival.

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