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The Asahi Shinbun’s Loss of Nerve

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Replica of Glendale comfort woman statue at Ganbare Nippon rally in Tsukiji (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — It has been impossible for any journalist in Japan, whether Japanese or foreign, to overlook the agony of the Asahi Shinbun over the past couple months. They have stumbled from one mistake to another, and in the process they have inadvertently energized the Japanese right and deflated moderates and liberals.

The Asahi’s original sin, of course, was sloppy fact-checking in its news articles, and perhaps a tendency to be a little too sensational in its coverage of controversial events. The most serious of these cases was that of Seiji Yoshida and his false testimony about comfort women on the island of Jeju. The journalistic mistake was allowed to fester for decades before the Asahi’s belated admission of culpability.

But the Asahi’s misjudgments go beyond the mistakes in its articles to the question of unbelievable political naivete. With Shinzo Abe firmly in power and a rightist political wind blowing hard on Japan right now, what reaction did the Asahi’s editors expect when they decided to make their painful admissions at that juncture? It is, of course, proper for serious journalists to admit mistakes and set the record straight, but how did they possibly convince themselves that they would be treated fairly in this particular political climate?

Stepping back, it is clear that rightwing revisionists, who have no respect for truths that don’t fit their nationalist ideology, have outplayed the Asahi Shinbun from beginning to end in this affair. First, it was the rising drumbeat of criticism that induced the Asahi editors to reexamine the Seiji Yoshida articles at this time. Then, the Asahi editors somehow convinced themselves that now was a proper occasion to come clean. Next, when the entirely predictable avalanche of criticism fell upon their heads, they were clearly panicked and didn’t know how to react. Even from the outside, it is obvious that the Asahi Shinbun is currently engaged in internal disputes and recriminations which have lowered the prestige of the entire organization.

But the Asahi Shinbun’s more fundamental mistake is not the obvious one of writing sloppy articles. Their deeper error has been decades in the making. Put simply, the Asahi Shinbun has gradually lost its identity as a genuine newspaper of the liberal left.

It’s kind of ironic when one listens to the verbal attacks on the Asahi launched by Ganbare Nippon protesters outside the newspaper’s headquarters in Tsukiji. Their denunciation of the Asahi is precisely that it is a “left-wing” organization that has fabricated lies that have damaged Japan’s international reputation.

The real problem for the Asahi Shinbun is that they have become a timid, centrist newspaper that no longer understands clearly what they stand for. Instead of looking confused and embarrassed as the Sankei, Yomiuri, and even the Abe government itself gleefully pile on the criticism, they should be hitting back hard with facts and more facts.

What the Asahi should be saying now is the following: “Yes, we made a big mistake about Seiji Yoshida, but there is plenty of other evidence about the brutality of the comfort women system that is available such as X and Y. And, yes, it is true that Japan’s international reputation has been damaged, but that damage is not because of what we report but because of what the Japanese Imperial Army actually did in the 1930s and 1940s. We are sorry that some of our countrymen think that loving Japan means fabricating a fictional, prettified version of history, but the Asahi Shinbun believes that a true love of country necessitates facing the reality of the past so as to make a better reality for the future.”

The Asahi Shinbun’s true mistake is their loss of nerve and their failure to stand up to the rightwing myth-makers.

A Japanese-language version of this article appeared in the October 3 issue of Shukan Kinyobi.