TOKYO (AFP) – Japan’s biggest newspaper apologised Friday for its long-time use of the term “sex slave”, the latest sign of a shift to the right in public life as nationalists press for a less critical reading of Tokyo’s war record.
The step by the Yomiuri Shimbun comes as Japanese conservatives ramp up the pressure for a more sympathetic reading of the country’s wartime behaviour, egged on by the nationalist government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The centre-right Yomiuri said its “Daily Yomiuri” English-language paper had erred by using the term “sex slaves” to refer to the women forced to work in brothels serving the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
It said the term gave the mistaken impression that the system was official policy.
“The Yomiuri Shimbun apologises for having used these misleading expressions and will add a note stating that they were inappropriate to all the articles in question in our database,” the Japanese paper said in a column printed in its English-language paper, now named “The Japan News”.
The Japanese language paper carried a similarly worded apology.
The term “sex slaves” used by the Daily Yomiuri was “based on an inaccurate perception and using foreign news agencies’ reports as reference,” said The Japan News, adding that the original Japanese Yomiuri stories did not use them.
The English edition now uses the euphemism “so-called comfort women”, although the paper admits that the phrase is difficult to understand without any prior knowledge of the issue.
AFP, in common with other global news agencies AP and Reuters, uses the term “sex slaves”.
Despite a dearth of official records, mainstream researchers estimate up to 200,000 women, many from Korea but also from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, served Japanese soldiers in “comfort stations”.
Many historians say these women were not willing participants and that the Imperial Japanese Army and wartime government were involved in their enslavement, either tacitly or explicitly.
The Yomiuri’s change of policy aligns with conservative arguments that the Japanese government was not involved. Right-wingers say the women were common prostitutes engaged in a commercial exchange.
The issue has come under renewed public attention this year after the influential liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper retracted contentious reports it began publishing in 1982.
They cited a Japanese man who claimed to have kidnapped women on the South Korean island of Jeju for sex slavery. His testimony has long-since been discredited.
The Japanese government, including conservative Abe, has repeatedly recognised and apologised for the suffering of individual women who were part of the system.
But equivocations by him and other nationalists – including a review of the Japanese government’s 1993 apology for sex slavery that he instituted – have sparked controversy at home and abroad.
South Korea is particularly vocal and has repeatedly demanded Japan apologise sincerely and come to terms with its past.