Wed, Jan 30, 2019 - Page 9 News List

‘Fear’ and ‘favor’ chill newsroom at storied Japanese newspaper

By Mari Saito and Ami Miyazaki  /  Reuters, TOKYO

Early last month, dozens of journalists and editors from the Japan Times gathered for an emergency meeting in a glass-walled conference room in their brand-new 14th-floor office.

On the agenda was a single, incendiary issue: the newspaper’s new descriptions of how Japan compelled thousands of foreigners into military brothels and labor during World War II.

In the past, the Japan Times described Korean workers as “forced laborers” and “comfort women” as those “forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II.”

However, a five-sentence note published on Nov. 30 last year said that the country’s oldest English-language paper would refer to the Korean workers simply as “wartime laborers.”

The newspaper also said that because of the varied experiences of comfort women, it would describe them as “women who worked in wartime brothels, including those who did so against their will.”

Such terms are social flashpoints in Japan and a topic of bitter dispute with South Korea, whose government has argued that comfort women were clear victims of wartime abuse.

The changes come amid simmering tensions — the South Korean Supreme Court in October last year ruled that Japanese companies must compensate South Koreans forced to work during the war.

Japan Times executive editor Hiroyasu Mizuno told staff in the meeting last month that he had two goals: to avoid creating the perception the paper was “anti-Japanese” and to increase advertising revenue from Japanese companies and institutions.

Some readers said that the change glossed over Japan’s wartime actions.

Meanwhile, prominent Japanese conservatives applauded the move, calling it a coup for nationalist activists agitating for English-language news outlets to change such descriptions.

In an e-mail, Mizuno told Reuters that he and senior editorial managers decided to revise the newspaper’s descriptions to “better reflect a more objective view of topics that are both contentious and difficult to summarize.”

The Nov. 30 note did not signal a change in the newspaper’s editorial direction, he said, adding: “I categorically deny any accusations that the Japan Times has bowed to external pressure.”

The Japan Times has an outsized impact on how the country is perceived abroad — it is distributed in Japan with the New York Times — and is seen domestically as an unofficial style guide for other English-language outlets.

A New York Times representative said that the editorial operations of the two organizations were separate and that the newspaper used precise language on the topic and would continue to do so.

Reuters interviews with nearly a dozen Japan Times employees — all of whom requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal — along with hundreds of pages of internal e-mails and presentation materials, showed that the editorial changes started taking shape when the newspaper changed hands in June 2017.

Some media critics have said that self-censorship is a problem in Japanese newsrooms, fed by fear of losing access, advertising revenue and subscribers.

In the past, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga have singled out the liberal Asahi Shimbun for criticism, including over its articles on comfort women and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster, some of which it later retracted, citing errors.

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