Japan’s Biggest Newspaper Apologizes for ‘Sex Slave’ Stories

Japan’s biggest-circulation daily newspaper apologized today for using the term “sex slaves’’ in stories about Asian women trafficked to Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

The Yomiuri newspaper said it had found the term and other “misleading” expressions implying the women had been forced to provide sexual services in 97 articles in its English-language edition between 1992 and 2013. The paper said it would add notes to each of the stories in its database to explain that they were “inappropriate.”

Japan’s attitude toward what it calls “comfort women” is one of the main issues hampering a recovery in ties with South Korea, where survivors have been actively campaigning for a new government apology and compensation. The two countries have not held a bilateral summit since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012 and strained ties are impeding the trilateral defense cooperation sought by the U.S. amid China’s military rise.

“Japan’s refusal to use the term ’sexual slavery’ and forcing the international community to use the ambiguous term ’comfort women’ distorts the core of the problem and can only be seen as an effort to whitewash its past mistakes,” an official at the South Korean foreign ministry, who asked not to be named per ministry policy, said by phone.

Rival Paper

The apology came after the rival Asahi newspaper withdrew a series of stories about the forcible rounding-up of Korean women to serve in brothels, which it said were based on false testimony. The Asahi was criticized by the Yomiuri and by Japanese nationalists who deny that the women -- by some historians’ accounts as many as 200,000 -- were forced to serve.

“The expression ‘comfort women’ was difficult to understand for non-Japanese who did not have knowledge of the subject,” the paper said in both its English and Japanese editions. The English-language version “added such explanations as ‘women who were forced into sexual slavery’” to its translations of Japanese articles, the Yomiuri said.

While Abe has repeatedly said he upholds Japan’s 1993 apology to the women, he also said the Asahi’s coverage had damaged Japan’s reputation. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in September the term “sex slaves” was an inappropriate description.

“The Abe government has been trying to use the Asahi retraction as a way of rewriting history, by selling the argument in Japan that the whole comfort woman story is an Asahi fabrication,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Election Campaign

The newspaper’s apology comes days before the official start of the campaign for national elections on Dec. 14 triggered by Abe’s decision to dissolve parliament this month to seek a new mandate for his economic policies.

The Yomiuri’s public relations department said in a faxed response to questions that it had not examined its coverage of the issue in response to any external complaint. The wording of the English-language stories came to light in the course of an investigation into the effect the Asahi newspaper’s reporting had on shaping public opinion on the military brothels, it said.

Japan previously offered compensation to survivors, but the plan was rejected by Korean victims because the funds came from private donors rather than the government.

The Yomiuri has a circulation of more than 10 million, according to its website.

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