by Catherine Schuknecht
UCLA International Institute, June 1, 2015 — Former Japanese journalist Uemura Takashi spoke at a recent event cosponsored by UCLA's Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies and Center for Korean Studies regarding renewed claims that he fabricated evidence for two articles published by The Asahi Shimbun in 1991. The articles in Japan’s leading newspaper described the testimony of a South Korean “comfort woman.” Currently an adjunct lecturer at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan, Takashi visited UCLA on the final stop of a nationwide lecture tour.
The speaker argued that recent efforts to defame him point to a larger endeavor by the conservative right-wing administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to deny Japan’s role in the sexual enslavement of women and other wartime crimes. “This issue represents an attack against freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the autonomy of the university and academic freedom,” he said. “[These] are components of the democracy that Japan has safeguarded for 70 years since the end of World War II.”
The woman who changed everything
Takashi’s 1991 articles concerned Kim Hak-sun, who was coerced into sexual slavery in Japan during WWII and had anonymously recounted her experiences to the Korean Council to Address the Issue of the Volunteer Corps. The Council is an organization committed to gathering the testimonies of women coerced into working as sex slaves at military-operated “comfort stations” during Japan’s occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 1930s through the end of World War II.
Three days after Takashi published his article, the woman in question came forward publicly at a press conference and revealed the details of her deeply personal and horrifying experience as a comfort woman, both to her family and to onlookers in Korea, Japan and abroad, along with her name.
At age 67, Hak-sun became the first woman to speak openly about her experience as a comfort woman. At the time, the Japanese government’s official stance placed responsibility for the enslavement of comfort women on private civilian recruiters and contractors. Hak-sun’s testimony encouraged other former comfort women to come forward as witnesses and in December 1991, she and several other victims sued the Japanese government, demanding compensation and an official apology.
“It was the courageous testimony by Ms. Kim Hak-sun that was really historic,” insisted Takashi. “With her courageous coming forward, the comfort woman issue came to be known around the world.”
Another former comfort woman, Yong Soo Lee, attended the event and spoke briefly about her experience of testifying. “I am the living witness of history who . . . [was] forcefully taken in the middle of the night,” said Lee, adding that Prime Minister Abe must have very bad eyesight and hearing if he could not recognize Japan’s role in the enslavement of comfort women.
As a direct result of the emerging witness accounts of former comfort women, the Japanese government initiated an investigation that culminated in the publication of the Kono Statement in 1993. That statement concluded that the Japanese military was involved in the establishment of comfort stations and the recruitment of women, largely from the Korean peninsula, against their will. Two years after the statement, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama released another statement in which he expressed remorse and issued an apology for Japan’s colonial rule and its invasion of Asian countries.
A backlash 24 years later
The attacks against Takashi for his 1991 articles are part of a recent resurgence of nationalism in Japan. These attacks have ranged from public denunciations by prominent politicians and journalists to violent threats by anonymous letter writers. Although their methods vary, his critics all contend that Takashi is a national traitor.
In January 2014, Shukan Bunshun, a popular Japanese weekly magazine, published an article that denounced Takashi as a fabricator, claiming that he had used the phrase “forcibly taken” inaccurately to describe Kim Hak-sun’s coercion into sexual slavery.
“I wrote that these were people who were deceived into becoming comfort women, not necessarily that they were forcibly taken,” explained Takashi. “[T]he accusation against me is based on an intentional. . . misinterpretation of my use of the term.”
Two public figures have also lent legitimacy to the defamation of Takashi: Nishioka Tsutomu, a professor at Tokyo Christian University in Japan, and the prominent Japanese journalist Sakurai Yoshiko, who have both called his articles fabrications.
Takashi has also been the target of even nastier attacks, some of which have caused him to fear for his family’s safety. In August 2014, for example, a picture of Takashi’s17 year-old daughter was anonymously posted on the Internet. The image attracted numerous mean-spirited comments, including one that read, “How many Japanese have suffered, thanks to this girl’s father? We have no choice but to drive her to suicide.”
Takashi is working with a group of lawyers and sympathetic Japanese citizens to counter the attacks against him, which he considers a fundamental violation of his basic human rights. Currently, he is engaged in a lawsuit against Tsutomu, Yoshiko and the publishers of the magazines that run their articles and interviews.
“I thought that as long as Nishioka and Sakuri continue to label me a fabricator, the attacks against me, against my family and against my university, would not stop,” said the former journalist.
Ultra-rightists in Japan threaten democracy
“Mr. Uemura's experience is not an isolated incident,” remarked Katsuya Hirano, associate professor of history at UCLA who helped organize the event. “Rather, it is symptomatic of the sudden surge of Japan’s ultranationalist movement, which seeks not only to whitewash history, but also to exercise [an] extreme degree of intolerance against anyone whom it considers dishonoring and betraying the country.”
Takashi argued that Japan’s right-leaning administration is using his defamation as an opportunity to push a revisionist history of Japan’s involvement in World War II. Already in 2007, Prime Minister Abe denied that comfort women were forced into sexual slavery and called for a reexamination of the 1993 Kono Statement.
Popular support for the nationalist movement has also been on the rise. A recent manga comic entitled “The Great Hate Korean Wave” called for Takashi to be made to kneel on the ground in front of Yasukuni Shrine. The image of the shrine depicted in the comic encapsulates the paradox of Japanese revisionist history, as the shrine commemorates Japanese war heroes as well as a number of “Class A” Japanese war criminals.
Currently, all junior high school textbooks in Japan with the exception of one contain no references to comfort women. “This is a truly alarming situation for the future of democracy in Japan,” observed Takashi. “Equally concerning is their determination to discredit and eliminate any voices, especially voices of those who experienced horrifying violence under Japan’s colonial rule.” Efforts to deny the comfort women issue, he added, hurt the “dignity of the former comfort women grandmothers who were courageous enough to recount their very painful experiences.”
Despite Japan’s growing nationalist movement, the former comfort woman who spoke at the event remained optimistic. “In order to hear the official apology and reparation for the crimes committed by Japan from Abe,” declared Yong Soo Lee, “I am going to live for 200 years!”
Takashi is equally determined. “I am not a fabricator; I will not give in to these unjust attacks,” he asserted. “So, I will fight!”