By Ikuhiko Hata, professor emeritus, Nihon University

The major focal points of contention surrounding the comfort women issue can be narrowed to two topics: whether or not government authorities conducted coercive recruitment systematically and violently; and whether or not the lives of comfort women at the comfort stations were so miserable as to refer to them as "sex slaves."

While these issues have extended to the political and international arenas, there has not exactly been a resolution of the debate. However, I would like to, first of all, appreciate The Asahi Shimbun, which seems to have consistently led media reporting of comfort women over more than 20 years, for conducting a self-examination of its past coverage, even though it should have been done earlier.

I believe those concerned will read it with interest, and expectations will go beyond that of the report of the government study surrounding the Kono statement, which was released on June 20.

I would like to take up several points on my own as to the way this re-examination was done.

I believe the Jan. 11, 1992, edition of The Asahi Shimbun created the initial image of the comfort women issue and limited the subsequent tone of the coverage. In the keyword explanation titled "Military comfort women," there is a passage that said "mainly Korean women were forcibly rounded up in the name of women's labor corps. (emphasis added by author) The numbers are said to range from 80,000 to 200,000." The editorial that appeared on the following day repeated the gist of the first article. It also called for honest atonement of the error and presented the direction for resolving the issue as an editorial.

While it is rare for an article to contain so much misconception and false reporting, other media outlets followed in the same vein. As a result, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized after admitting to coercive recruitment. It also led to the realization of a course of distributing "atonement money" to the former comfort women through the newly created Asian Women's Fund.

While the latest re-examination has admitted to confusion with the women's labor corps due to a lack of information at that time, it states that the total number and breakdown by ethnic group is unknown.

Regarding whether or not coercive recruitment was conducted, it explains that Seiji Yoshida, who testified that he had hunted for comfort women on Jeju Island, appeared in the pages of Asahi on 16 occasions, but stopped appearing after 1993 because the judgment was made that his testimony appeared to be a falsehood. It goes on to emphasize that the term coercive recruitment "was not used as much as possible" thereafter.

However, while the tone was more reserved the last time Asahi provided special coverage (on March 31, 1997), with the passage "confirmation could not be made of the authenticity" of the Yoshida testimony, this time, it revised its stance to say "the judgment was made that it was a fabrication. We retract our articles. We were unable to uncover the falseness of his testimony." There may be some people dissatisfied that no apology was included, but many people will likely praise this as unprecedented.

However, while rejecting the Yoshida testimony, which was the sole basis for coercive recruitment, it also quotes from a few examples of order violations and individual crimes that were subject to military tribunals in China and Indonesia and emphasizes "coercion" and "military involvement" at the comfort stations. It is regrettable that an ambiguous evading of responsibility can be seen in the passage, "The Asahi Shimbun's awareness of the issue has not changed."

Perhaps because there is some connection, the latest re-examination deleted quotes from a report of questioning of Korean comfort women taken prisoner by the U.S. military in Burma that was included in the last re-examination. The quotes had the comfort women saying about their income, "we received monthly earnings of between 300 to 1,500 yen. … 'we were also allowed to shop in the city.' "

Adding to those quotes, the women's earnings were several tens of times that of soldiers, and with that high of an income, they sent money back to their homes and they also had the freedom to quit and return to their home nations or refuse customers. While this makes it difficult to refer to them as slaves, it appears that the Asahi is following in the belief that they were sex slaves, which is gaining acceptance in the international community.

Was this a strategic consideration to overcome the two major points I mentioned at the very beginning, with an outcome of one win and one defeat?

Ironically, in South Korea, 122 former comfort women for the U.S. military filed a lawsuit on June 25 against the South Korean government seeking compensation and an apology because they were forced to be sex slaves. There are other voices brewing that call for pursuing responsibility surrounding comfort women for the South Korean military as well as sex crimes allegedly committed during the Vietnam War.

While a standard move in international intelligence war is to "criticize others while tabling matters regarding ourselves," it may be time for Japan to also go on the counteroffensive.

(Written contribution)

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Born in 1932 in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Specialization is modern Japanese history. Has served as a professor at Takushoku University, Chiba University and Nihon University. Among his published books are "Ianfu to Senjo no Sei" (Comfort women and sex on the battlefield) and "Nankin Jiken" (Nanking incident). There are plans to publish articles about his thoughts on the comfort women issue in the September issue of both Bungeishunju and Chuokoron.