Japan Paper’s Retractions May Mute Criticism of Abe Government

The Asahi Shimbun retracted the latest in a series of inaccurate stories this week, further damaging the credibility of the biggest national Japanese newspaper that criticizes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over diplomacy, security and nuclear power.

The apology for a faked interview with Nintendo President Satoru Iwata follows its acknowledgment of misreporting going back decades and threatens to erode the influence of the 135-year-old paper known as The New York Times of Japan. Abe called on the Asahi on Sept. 14 to do more to ensure the world becomes aware of its withdrawal of articles saying Japanese officials kidnapped South Korean girls from their homes to work as sex slaves before or during World War II.

“The more conservative elements of the Abe administration could be emboldened to push their agenda, and the Asahi less capable of pushing back” following the retractions, said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo.

The issue of the Imperial Army’s use of so-called comfort women during the war remains a sensitive one in Japan, with some conservative Japanese rejecting the idea the military coerced women across Asia into servitude. It has strained relations with South Korea, which campaigned for years for the Japanese government to acknowledge official involvement in running the brothels and do more to make up for the past.

In August, the Asahi, which says on its website it has a circulation of more than 8 million, published a review of its coverage of comfort women. It withdrew stories from the 1980s and 1990s based on author Seiji Yoshida’s assertions that he was involved in the forcible rounding up of South Korean women, saying his testimony could not be verified. While the paper retracted the stories based on Yoshida’s evidence, it said its reporting showed thousands of women were coerced to serve in military brothels.

‘Were True’

“The Asahi reported on Mr. Seiji Yoshida’s evidence as if it were true,” Abe told national broadcaster NHK on Sept. 14. “Then the Asahi articles were carried around the world, including of course to South Korea, as if they were true.”

Last week Asahi president Tadakazu Kimura held a press conference in Tokyo where he apologized for misreporting on another story. The paper erroneously said that 650 workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disobeyed an order from the plant’s manager by fleeing the scene in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. A senior member of the paper’s editorial staff was replaced over the incident.

The Asahi had obtained a copy of testimony made by Fukushima plant manager Masao Yoshida before the government released it. Its interpretation of the testimony was contradicted by the Sankei newspaper, which later obtained the document.

Nuclear Restarts

After that correction, the paper’s Vox Populi column, which is carried daily on the front page, said “the shattered pieces must be picked up and put together, no matter how long it may take. The destroyed credibility must be rebuilt from scratch.”

The Asahi has been critical of Abe’s policy of restarting nuclear plants that meet safety standards, something that polls indicate a majority of the public opposes. A survey published by the Nikkei newspaper on Aug. 24 found 56 percent of respondents opposed restarts, while 32 percent approved.

“What the Asahi-style reporting shows in both cases is an unjust belittling of Japan,” conservative author Yoshiko Sakurai said on her website. “I even have to wonder whether they are obsessed with criticizing Japan and Japanese people.”

The Asahi said its review of its coverage of the comfort women had come in response to online criticism and queries from readers. Other media criticized the paper for not withdrawing the stories earlier.

‘Important Lesson’

“We want to continue to carry out our responsibilities as journalists,” the Asahi said in a faxed statement in response to questions from Bloomberg. “Our policy is to take this situation as an important lesson, humbly listen to opinions and criticism and rebuild our reporting structure, focusing above all on the accuracy of stories.”

In the latest setback the newspaper apologized in its own pages on Sept. 14 for falsely implying it had interviewed Nintendo’s Iwata in a story published in June 2012. The quotes reported as an interview were taken from the Nintendo website.

The damage to the Asahi’s circulation may be limited, according to Tsuneo Watanabe, director of foreign and security policy research at The Tokyo Foundation.

“Those people who like to read the Asahi will continue to read it,” he said. “They will never change from the Asahi to the Sankei,” he said, referring to Japan’s most conservative national daily paper.

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