Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Media's Role in the Comfort Women Issue
NISHIKAWA Megumi  / Journalist

October 13, 2014
Once a year, scholars, politicians and journalists from Japan and South Korea meet for a candid exchange of views on bilateral relations and other issues at the Korea-Japan Forum, which was held in Fukuoka this year for three days in August. This year's Forum was the 22nd of such meetings. I attended the Forum as a member and found it to be a valuable opportunity for non-government dialogue at a time when the relationship between Japan and South Korea is at its nadir.

Why had the relationship deteriorated to such levels? Former politicians and bureaucrats who were responsible for shaping past policy in Japan and South Korea provided a backstage account based on their respective positions. One said the best of intentions had gone unappreciated by the other side, while another spoke of messages expressing displeasure that the other side never understood. As I listened to their comments, I couldn't help thinking that in addition to the missed opportunities and exaggerated mutual expectations, the lack of sensible political leaders on either side had only made matters worse between the two countries.

The role of the media was another topic of discussion. I pointed out that the media had played no small part in precipitating the current situation, and presented the issue of comfort women as an example.

The comfort women issue came to the fore in the early 1990s. In response, the government of Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi decided to set up an Asian Women's Fund in 1995 to undertake an "Atonement Project." The project included seeking donations from the Japanese people to compensate former comfort women, providing government-funded medical and welfare support for these women, and delivering a letter of apology from the Japanese prime minister.

However, the media reacted in harsh unison, pouring criticism on the government and the Fund. They reasoned that it was the government's job to provide compensation, that to seek donations from the public was to shift attention away from the issue, and accused the government of using the Fund as a cover to elude responsibility.

At the time, I was merely following the headlines. It was several years later, when I was researching the imperial couple's visit to the Netherlands in 2000, that I began my investigations into the Atonement Project.

During World War II when the Japanese army occupied Indonesia - which was a Dutch colony at the time, 130,000 Dutch civilians and POWs were sent to concentration camps and about 200 Dutch women were forced to serve as comfort women. When the Fund was first established, the Atonement Project was intended for three countries and one region – South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan. However, at the strong urging of the Japanese Ambassador to the Netherlands, the government incorporated the Netherlands into the project in 1998.

Until then, the media had only highlighted the fierce campaigns waged against the Fund by citizens' groups in South Korea. Only through my own investigations did I learn about the many aspects of the issue that had gone unreported. In the Netherlands, 79 surviving women were recognized as former comfort women, of which 77 received compensation from the Fund, which also extended three million yen in medical and welfare support. Only two had rejected the offer. The Fund was also relatively successful in its operations in the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia.

In the comfort women issue, the media had been at fault for letting itself be swayed by hardline citizens' groups and non-government organizations (NGOs) demanding unqualified compensation from the Japanese government. It led to biased reporting that was at once argumentative and emotional. The voice of citizens' groups must surely be heard. Yet, the media had stopped at criticizing the government and the Fund, and neglected to report on what the Fund meant for the former comfort women, how the Atonement Project was actually being carried out, and how the women themselves felt about such "atonement."

Onuma Yasuaki, a scholar of international law who was involved in the Asian Women's Fund from its inception to dissolution in 2007, has pointed out that many media organizations and NGOs opted to act only within their traditional role of criticizing government policy, thus avoiding the political responsibility of pursuing maximum results based on limited political resources and options.

Negative reports by the Japanese media regarding the government and the Fund were amplified by the South Korean media, fanning mistrust of Japan among the Korean people. Throughout the controversy, any sense of atonement felt by the Japanese people seldom got through.

Reports on the Fund and its Atonement Project began appearing in Japan during the first administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, around the time the U.S. Congress passed a resolution in July 2007 demanding an apology from the Japanese government to former comfort women. It was reported in the context of: "Japan has done what it can through the Asian Women's Fund." We should recognize the fact that because of the Fund, we were spared from being criticized by the international community for doing nothing to address the issue.

Hadn't the media acted more like a demagogue, instead of seeking and proposing a solution to the issue? We must reconsider the role played by the Japanese media in aggravating the issue of comfort women. And the same applies to the Korean media. Instead of conveying the true wishes of the elderly former comfort women, it focused on the uncompromising campaigns led by citizens' groups and criticized the women who had accepted compensation from the Fund, thus isolating them from society. Why was the Fund's Atonement Project effective in other countries and regions including the Netherlands and the Philippines, and fail only in South Korea? The Korean media, too, has some soul searching to do on this point.

Megumi Nishikawa is contributing editor of Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

西川 恵 / ジャーナリスト

2014年 10月 13日












一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Media's Role in the Comfort Women Issue