Journalist members react to bizarre claim by a Japanese news organization

On March 29, Sankei News published a column entitled “Takao Harakawa’s East Asia Anemometer: Foreign Correspondents in Tokyo Blindly Believe Anti-Japan Propaganda by China and Korea; Press Conference Turns into Meeting to Condemn Japan.”

The article focused on a press conference held by two Tokyo-area municipal assemblywomen, members of a delegation that visited Glendale, California to protest that city’s erection of a “comfort women” statue.

Harakawa scolded the attending journalists, claiming that one of the assemblywomen was “visibly confused when confronted with unanticipated questions,” including one about Koreans being forced to work in the coalmines of Oita. (He did not identify the questioner, FCCJ Member Fred Varcoe, who recorded his take in “My question to comfort women deniers,” [No.1 Shimbun, April, 2014]).

The article also said the questions from the foreign journalists “were clearly based on a lack of understanding and prejudice.” It chided a “German journalist” (the unidentified Siegfried Knittel) for asking the women if the act of denying the military was involved in the “comfort women” activities would not gain the world’s understanding, but invite a backlash.

One anonymous journalist is quoted saying to one of the politicians after the press conference: “Today’s press conference was held not to ask questions, but for the purpose of denouncing Japan, wasn’t it?” Then the article quoted an assemblywoman as saying, “The Japanese government has never made a serious effort to offer counterarguments, and the Korean propaganda is much louder, so I feel that antagonism against Japan is building among many foreign journalists.”

The only attributed statement was by FCCJ member Hiroyuki Fujita (the interpreter for the assemblywomen), who blamed the journalists’ questions on the fact that “What foreigners, particularly those from Allied countries, believe to be the truth is based on the Tokyo War Crimes Trial view of history. . . . Mr. [Henry Scott] Stokes is an exception. He is one of the very few foreign correspondents who seriously studies the subject.” All other quotes were unattributed.

The charges made in the headline, however, were surprising enough that No.1 Shimbun asked some FCCJ correspondents, including the questioners, for their take on Sankei News’ claims.

Commentator Takao Harakawa believes foreign journalists in Japan are influenced by Chinese and South Korean anti-Japanese propaganda. But foreign journalists here are well informed: we would never accept at face value Chinese and Korean propaganda, nor are we victims of the Japanese nationalist conservatives’ propaganda about the denial of comfort women, the Nanjing massacre and forced labor in the mining industry.

“Many foreign journalists in Japan are concerned with the stubbornness of the nationalist-conservatives’ refusal to acknowledge Japan’s responsibility for the war in East Asia from 1931 to 1945 and the war crimes that took place. Many journalists are worried that Japan will isolate itself through these denials, since the outside world does not understand the current government’s way of dealing with the past. We know that Japan is not a revanchist state despite China’s pronouncements, but the inability to acknowledge the past by the Japanese national-conservative government and media like Sankei is a huge help to Chinese anti-Japanese propaganda.

Siegfried Knittel
Freelance journalist (Germany)

I know the Sankei people. They are good people. At the same time I hate to see us being challenged by them. The media world is very small and fragile and we have real time stories breaking as I write. I hope that we can reach out to and learn from our Japanese colleagues, not least the folk at Sankei! Their own track record over the last half-century notably in respect to their coverage of Beijing during the 70s and 80s has been exemplary. They declined to be bullied by Beijing and settled for an independence from Beijing that the other big dailies here failed to match.

Henry Scott Stokes
Yukan Fuji columnist

I was not at the event, but I did read the Sankei article. While I think it is true that China is seeking to discredit Japan, and South Korea is appealing for international support on the “comfort women” issue, these efforts should not be conflated with foreign journalists in Tokyo asking tough or skeptical questions. In fact, it is potentially dangerous not to mention self-defeating for Japan when a news organization here accuses fellow journalists of being “anti-Japanese” simply because they express different views of history. This is what I would expect from Chinese or even North Korean state-run media, but not a major journalistic institution in a free society.

“Japan’s greatest strength is the fact that it has been a peaceful, democratic nation for nearly 70 years, an accomplishment that very few of its neighbors can match. An important part of this has been a free and open press, including foreign news organizations, which have played an important role in Japan by providing the critical perspectives that large local news organizations can lack. Trying to vilify or marginalize foreign journalists risks descending into the sort of witch hunt that I would expect to see in some of Japan’s less liberal neighbors, but not here in East Asia’s oldest democracy.

Martin Fackler
New York Times

FCCJ elder correspondents are naturally aware and informed. We are like a Japanese drum, or taiko, whose beat resonates with history. Japanese right-wingers always challenge the guilty vision of the past, reject the idea of aggression, and deny the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in Asia. This amnesia has invaded textbooks and television and even some manga serve up a nationalist political message. But questioning and commenting is the right of journalists, and it’s possible to ask questions to anyone in Japan, or even attend the Emperor interviews. In general, in Japan, it’s necessary to ensure that the person understands the questions, as Japanese are very emotional in matters of communication. As a background to my questions, over the years I researched WWII with American and Asian experts in Congress, as well as journalists and historians, and found a lot of information in the archives. For the benefit of the public, the media and researchers, I hope more archives will be released, some 69 years after the defeat of Japan.

Joël Legendre-Koizumi
RTL France Broadcasting

I hope Sankei appreciates the irony of a news organization lambasting journalists for putting politicians through the wringer. The idea that experienced foreign reporters, many with an academic background in East Asian studies, are blindly swallowing South Korean and Chinese propaganda is risible at best. As a correspondent for a newspaper based in the U.K., where the media are not afraid to show their political colors, I have no problem with editors using their pages to generate debate on sensitive political and historical issues in this case wartime sex slaves and the Nanking Massacre. That, however, doesn’t seem to be the motivation for their attack on foreign correspondents. Instead, it came across as the journalistic equivalent of playing the man, not the ball. But we'll live.

“The column got one thing right, though. Japan does a spectacularly poor job of explaining its position on diplomatic issues to the rest of the world. The fault for that lies with politicians, not the foreign journalists who rightly treat all official pronouncements with skepticism, whether they emanate from Tokyo, Seoul or Beijing. Critics of coverage by Japan-based foreign correspondents should direct their ire towards the country’s leaders. Then again, that might involve asking them one or two uncomfortable questions.

Justin McCurry
The Guardian

It was shocking to realize that the two assemblywomen believed that by alleging cases of bullied Japanese schoolchildren in California, their attempt to revise history could gain sympathy from foreign journalists, many with much experience covering the Korean peninsula and China as well as Japan. Right-wing nationalists, including PM Abe, are surprisingly blind regarding their appearance to the world. No international media, apart from the Japanese right-wing media, supports their claims denying military involvement in the “comfort women” system. As was pointed out by a German journalist in the Q&A session, Japan is facing a loss of sympathy in international society. Before throwing around outdated arguments like “victors’ view of history,” Japan should respect the foreign media as objective and realistic Japan watchers.

Fuyuko Nishisato
Producer, ZDF TV (Germany)

In the interest of public debate, the FCCJ welcomed two legislators to discuss their belief that thousands of women herded into brothels by the wartime military were prostitutes, and that anyone who says otherwise is victim of the propaganda mills of the Chinese and Koreans. Such beliefs invariably come from people who have never talked to a single “comfort woman,” and often come from people with a long pedigree of revisionist denial. Nobody at the FCCJ pointed out that one of the speakers, Yoshiko Matsuura, has deep connections to Yukio Mishima’s private militia, Tate no Kai.

“Such people are not interested in debate. If they had confidence in the veracity of their beliefs, surely they would welcome probing questions of the kind they got a very mild taste of at the FCCJ. Instead, they smear the Club with the taint of “anti-Japanese bias.” Takao Harakawa concludes that Japan must counter propaganda, including using “additional budgetary measures.” My advice is to save the money. If the government had confessed, apologized properly and paid compensation in full, the comfort women issue would have disappeared from the news long ago. It is precisely these denials that keep it alive and force foreign correspondents to keep revisiting it.

David McNeill
The Independent

As moderator for the press conference, I fully expected tough questions on a controversial and divisive subject. My priority was to allow the speakers to present their views, and I left the event feeling it was a significant success. The speakers had a fair chance to say their piece and the journalists a fair chance to cross-examine them. That perception gaps remained between many of the participants was to be expected.

“The FCCJ hosts speakers of highly diverse ideological points of view. That our Club has journalists who challenge the speakers and ask tough questions is a point to be celebrated and take pride in. I wonder what kind of media culture Sankei must support to believe that journalists should not be skeptical and penetrating in their questioning. In a free society, a media that challenges politicians and power-holders is a necessity.

Michael Penn
Shingetsu News Agency